The AL kicks off its 102nd season tonight in Anaheim, where the Angels host the Cleveland Indians in a battle of two teams whose seasons will end on September 29. Who will play beyond that point?
This is as good as the Yankees have looked going into the season in some time, thanks to a significant injection of OBP over the winter. While some people have them winning 100 or more games, I believe that they'll have enough nagging injuries to keep them from making the division a runaway. As much money as has been spent, the Yankees are still extremely vulnerable should any of their up-the-middle guys–Jorge Posada, Alfonso Soriano, Derek Jeter, or Bernie Williams–go down.
They do have ridiculous pitching depth, and they'll need it, given that five of the team's top six starters comes with either age or health questions. Ted Lilly, who will open the year in the bullpen, will eventually move into the rotation and be an important part of the holding off of the Red Sox in the second half.
There's really only one issue for the Red Sox this year: how many innings will Pedro Martinez throw? That number needs to be in the high 100s for the team to have a shot at the Yankees or the wild card, and I put the chances of that happening at around 50%. Martinez is eventually going to be healthy and dominant again; it just may be a surgery away.
The Sox have improved the team around Martinez, although they still have questions in their infield, not the least of which is how far back Nomar Garciaparra will come. Look for him to be shy of his .370-hitting, doubles-machine peak, while still being one of the top three shortstops in the league, and worth a half-dozen games over what the Red Sox ran out there last season.
The other teams in this division are not contending this year, although the Blue Jays have enough talent on hand to make a run if they get some breaks in the pitching department. More likely, J.P. Ricciardi will continue the overhaul, collecting talent and pointing the franchise towards a nice run from 2004-2007.
While there won't be much separation in the standings between the Devil Rays and Orioles, we're seeing the beginning of a separation in approach. The Os continue to pay and play thirtysomethings, while the D-Rays have begun to work in younger players, albeit the products of a slender farm system. The difference is Tampa Bay's pitching, which will be better than average this year, and provides a lot of hope going forward. Paul Wilson makes the All-Star team.
While compiling the BP staff's predictions for the AL Central, I was surprised at how down everyone was on the White Sox, who I believe to be the best team in the division, hands down. While there are some question marks in the rotation and in the bullpen in front of Keith Foulke, the Sox are the one Central team capable of scoring 900 runs, and could be the only one that puts up 800.
Would I like to see better decision-making? Absolutely, but while the moves Kenny Williams has made as GM may hurt the White Sox down the road, they're not likely to haunt him this year. It’s disappointing to see Joe Crede losing playing time to Royce Clayton, but he did make the team, and is in position to benefit if Clayton reverts to his first-half-of-2001 form. Overall, I just don't see enough reasons for pessimism, not when compared to the tremendous potential for run scoring.
The BP staff was also more optimistic than I about the Minnesota Twins. Look, they were a great story last year, and had Cristian Guzman's shoulder held up, they may well have won the division, perhaps sparing us the whole contraction nonsense. However, they return many of the same OBP sinks that held down their offense last season, and while their rotation matches up with any in the AL outside of Oakland, the buy-in for winning in the American League is 800 runs, and I don't see the Twins getting there, not without one major acquisition to upgrade a corner-outfield spot.
The Indians hedged their bets this winter, lowering their payroll a bit but lowering their talent level by a lot. It can't be easy for Mark Shapiro, who takes over from John Hart just as the team on the field moves from perennial contender to rebuilding project. He'll have to make moves going forward that push the team more strongly towards rebuilding or winning, because signings like Ricky Gutierrez and Matt Lawton aren't going to do anything but keep the Indians on a treadmill. There's a lot of talent in the front office, however, and it's likely that we'll see a clearer plan develop over the next 18 months. For now, they're an 84-win team.
Just like the AL East, the AL Central has two teams that aren't going to have any impact on any races this season. The Tigers are a half-step ahead of the Royals right now, although both teams have a debilitating attraction to low-level, low-impact, mid-payroll free agents. The Royals still aren't going anywhere until they get a management overhaul, while the Tigers at least have Dave Dombrowski in place to begin the ascent.
The top three teams in this division could finish in any order. Two are going to decline from last year, while the third has the best offense in the league and could well bash their way into October.
The Mariners, I believe, are the safest pick. They return essentially the same team that won 116 games last season. Some decline is certain, but they'd have to fall back about 25 games to miss the playoffs, and I don't see the evidence for that. The tremendous defense is still in place, as is the bullpen. Their home park leads to a lot of low-scoring games, and those two elements give them an edge in those games.
Even allowing for some slippage from Bret Boone, Mike Cameron, John Olerud, and Ichiro Suzuki, the Mariners have added better hitters behind the plate (Ben Davis) and at third base (Jeff Cirillo). Their offense should still be good, if not the league-leading juggernaut it was last year. Overall, the Mariners seem like the safest bet to win the division.
I'm the only BP staffer who doesn't have the A's in one of the top two slots, and I freely admit I may be allowing what I saw in Arizona last week to weigh too heavily on my mind. I saw a sloppy team with some major issues defensively, and while some of that will be rectified if Jermaine Dye comes back healthy, I have to be skeptical about how much his range will be affected by the broken leg.
What's funny is that in two years, the A's have gone from the bashers model to a team whose starting pitching is its greatest strength. The primary A's asset on offense isn't their OBP or their walks, but their youth, which allows you to project improvement for most of the roster.
What I see for the A's this season is a consolidation year, as the team sees some players, like Jeremy Giambi, take big steps forward while others just hold their gains or even regress a little. At the same time, the defensive decline is going to cause them to give up a lot of extra runs, even as the pitching itself doesn't change much. Overall, it's a bad combination for this season, and one I think keeps them out of the playoffs.
The Rangers are going to score an obscene amount of runs. I list them as my wild-card team not only because I have qualms about the A's, but because I believe that when July rolls around and the Rangers are in the mix, Tom Hicks is going to do whatever it takes to patch the holes in the pitching staff for the final two months. The potential loss of Jeff Zimmerman is disappointing, but the Rangers have a ton of potential replacements; they're nearly as deep in right-handed relief as they are in good young third basemen.
I'll admit that I'm wishcasting some here. For all the nonsense that was written and broadcasted this winter, the potshots taken at John Hart for bringing in talented players with controversial histories like Carl Everett and John Rocker, I'd love to see the Rangers succeed, to disabuse people of the idea that chemistry is something we can know before the fact.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: chemistry is after-the-fact rationalization for unexpectedly good or bad performance, a copout used in lieu of a more rigorous analysis of what went right or wrong. It makes for a popular angle in the press, but it has no predictive value, little analytic value, and when used to justify or disparage decisions in the offseason, is worthless.
The other AL West team, the Angels, provides a pretty good example of this. They spend a lot of time and effort moving guys around to help their clubhouse atmosphere, but they never address the team's real problems–OBP and lousy double-play combinations–and they never win. After carrying four outfielders for years, they dumped the best one, Jim Edmonds, in part because he wasn't the most popular guy in the clubhouse. That failed miserably. They signed Mo Vaughn in an effort to bring in "presence." That failed miserably.
Amidst all this, the Angels may have wasted their best talent-development run ever, and now have to try and win with the remnants–late-prime and past-prime versions of Tim Salmon,Garret Anderson, and Darin Erstad, along with Troy Glaus–in a competitive environment that has changed dramatically in the last three years.
When the Angels stop worrying about attitude and start worrying about runs, they'll be on their way back to the postseason. Until then, they're a .500 team in a division where that's just not good enough.