American League East
The Yankees are the favorites again this year, though it isn’t unanimous.
That reflects the uncertainty we have about a team that is a year older
overall, and depending on guys like Roger Clemens, David Cone,
and Paul O’Neill to have good seasons. The Red Sox and Blue
Jays both managed to get a first place vote in finishing second and
third, respectively. We’re expecting Boston’s depth and Toronto’s
continuing maturity to make more of a race of it this year. Bringing
up the rear are the Orioles (who should be luckier this year, if nothing
else, after ending up with a losing record despite outscoring the opposition
in 1999) and the hapless Devil Rays. Though Tampa Bay did a nifty job cornering
the market in old sluggers this offseason, their pitching remains a joke
and they’ve got a good shot at the worst record in the league in 2000.
Jeff Hildebrand:: Yes the Yankees are a year older, but there’s
still too much talent there for me to pick anyone else. If they don’t
start rebuilding in 2001 they could be in trouble though. Boston seems to
be a trendy pick
this year, but I just don’t see it. They’ve got too many question marks
on the pitching staff beyond Pedro and a strong but not spectacular
lineup isn’t enough to make up for that in a good division. They’ll be
a good team, but not quite good enough. The Jays have talent, but they
also have a manager who will likely slag most of the young pitching
staff. All the moves the D-Rays have made will improve the team some,
but only about 5-10 wins worth, which still leaves them with a very
expensive losing team. Lots of solo home runs can only take you so far.
The Orioles seem poised to hit rock bottom. After the obvious warning
signs last year, they did nothing substantial to address the aging of
the team and start the rebuilding process.
Rany Jazayerli: Yes, the Red Sox. Not so much because of a leap
forward by the Chowderheads – the arrival of Carl Everett and Trot Nixon’s
improvement should make up for some
regression by Pedro and the loss of Saberhagen – but because the Yankees are
getting old. Paul O’Neill and Tino Martinez could lose it at any time, and
while the rotation is still effective, it’s too old to expect everyone to stay
healthy all season. If Nick Johnson shows up in Yankee Stadium by Memorial
Day, though, all bets are off. The Blue Jays’ chances at postseason success this
year were ruined by the tandem of Tim Johnson and Jim Fregosi; no longer can
Chris Carpenter and Kelvim Escobar be counted on to develop into aces. Camden
Yards is still a retirement home, and Mike Hargrove is hardly going to change
that. And the Devil Rays may have the most inflated opinion of themselves of
any team outside Detroit.
Keith Law: Some see a three-team race here, but I don’t see Toronto getting into it.
Their pitching staff is full of questions from the rotation down to Billy
(6+ ERA after the Break last year) Koch, and the offense won’t be enough to
overtake Boston and New York unless one of those two stumbles. The Yanks
are still good, but far removed from the ’98 team that set numerous win
records. The rotation is older and less effective; there’s no DH; Tino
Martinez, Paul O’Neill, and Scott Brosius are all slipping into mediocrity
or are already there; and left field remains an open sore. But Boston’s
rotation questions keep it from overtaking New York just yet, because
behind Pedro Martinez are a rehab project (Ramon Martinez), a retread who
topped a 7 ERA last year (Jeff Fassero), the unpredictable knuckleballer
(Tim Wakefield), and a rookie who has yet to pitch effectively in the
majors (Brian Rose). If the rotation works out – and they do have some
alternatives – they have an excellent shot at beating the Yankees, both in
the regular season and in the playoffs. As for Baltimore and Tampa Bay, the
only thing to exceed their payrolls is their irrelevance.
No, I’m not on the Interbrew payroll, and no, I’m not a
Yankee hater. But I recognize that the Yankees are vulnerable offensively
due to age and a lack of depth, and aside from Mariano Rivera, the
bullpen isn’t anything special, either. The Blue Jays have a young offense
with a real nine-man lineup. There are significant questions about their
rotation, most notably surrounding Chris Carpenter’s health, but
they have more upside than either of their competitors, and I think this is
the year they break through. The Red Sox have grown from a two-man team to
a three-man team, which will be enough to keep them in the mix.
The top three teams in this division could finish in any order, really, and
I doubt they’ll be separated by more than seven or eight games. The Orioles
and Devil Rays are, sadly, irrelevant.
Derek Zumsteg: The Red Sox have a startling amount of pitching to
reload with if the much-predicted injuries come, and may end up better for it.
The Yankees will do much worse than last year, but still pull the division out.
American League Central
We again predict the Central to have something less than a dramatic
playoff race this year, as the Indians are the consensus winners of
the division. As with the Yankees, the spectre of old age beckons.
The White Sox are comfortably in second; we expect some big things
from their pitching staff and young hitters. The Kansas City Royals
and Detroit Tigers are neck and neck for the next two spots, though
we don’t think they’ll be together in the standings next year if
they keep to their respective development plans. The Twins probably
won’t make it out of the basement again this season, but they have
some good young hitters close to the major leagues and a pitching
staff that could surprise.
This looks an awful lot like a last stand for Cleveland. They should
make it to the post-season again and once there, anything can happen.
Chicago has an awful lot of good young players and they could make this
a lot closer than most people expect, especially if Frank Thomas wakes
up from his two year slumber. Detroit got their big bopper in Gonzalez,
but gave up so much that they no longer have the supporting cast. If
the Royals could find some pitching they’d be a good sleeper candidate,
but as long as they keep screwing around with the likes of Tyler Green,
they aren’t going anywhere. As for the Twins, help may be on the way,
but it’s not here yet.
It’s the Indians again, but for the first time in years, a scenario can at least
be envisioned where, if the Indians suffer some key injuries and everything goes
right in Chicago or Kansas City, the Tribe end their season in September. That
scenario becomes less likely if Kenny Lofton really is ready to play sometime in
April. Chuck Finley has been targeted for a fall by some of us – okay, Joe –
for years, but I think it would be foolish to write off any pitcher who struck
out 200 men in 213 innings last year. The White Sox need Kip Wells to walk in
and be their ace this season if they expect to contend, and big improvements
from Sirotka and Parque would be nice too. The Royals have the most young
talent in the division, if not baseball, but they also have a front office
that likes Brett Laxton more than Jeremy Giambi and Jorge Fabregas more than Sal
Fasano. Miracles can happen, but never bet on a team that doesn’t know its
Ass from its head. The Tigers need to lay off the crack pipe; they’re not that
good, and they likely to be even worse over the next few years. The Twins?
At least LeCroy is here, and Cuddyer and Restovich are on their way. Be patient.
Closer than you think. I was tempted to put Chicago on top, just to make a
point, but I don’t believe this is the year. In 2002, Cleveland could end
up fighting just to finish in fourth, but they still have enough ammo to
pull out 90 wins and take the division. Chicago, Kansas City, and to a
lesser extent Minnesota are putting the elements together for a 2001
playoff push: Good young rotations, some young hitters with plate
discipline, and established cores with power. Each team has flaws that
could keep it from reaching 85 wins, but one team will finish within five
games of Cleveland. Detroit, for all the hullabaloo about the Juan Gonzalez
deal, took a bad team and made it worse, then added the ineffective Hideo
Oh, OK, I guess I’ll go with the Indians. More fun is
deciding what order the next three teams, all on the upswing and and all
with at least a chance of being 2000’s Oakland A’s, will finish in. The
White Sox have Frank Thomas and the most pitching depth, so they’re
my pick for second. At the risk of inspiring a special "Get
Sheehan" edition of Rob & Rany
on the Royals, I’ll go with the
Twins over Kansas City for third, on the notion that Terry Ryan will do
less harm than Herk Robinson. The Tigers have a nice new ballpark.
Peter Gammons’ slobberings to the contrary, the Indians are not the best
team in baseball. I see the White Sox and Royals continuing to improve to
make this year more interesting and the division’s future brighter.
American League West
We like what’s happening in Oakland, and we like it even more after Billy Beane
got the better of the Royals twice since spring training started. (Well, all of
us except Rany…) The Athletics are younger and have more pitching
depth than the defending champion Rangers, who need big years from older players
this season. The Mariners have been marching to a different drum since giving
Woody Woodward the boot, but losing Ken Griffey really hurts. In last
place we have another consensus winner, as none of us can see the Angels doing
anything productive this season.
Gee, wasn’t it just a year ago that everyone was pointing out how the
big money teams like the Angels were forever going to be trampling the
poor weak sisters like the A’s? Fortunately front office savvy still
counts for a lot, and the A’s have it in spades. This year the young
talent on the field matures enough to win a good close race with the
Rangers. Texas did a good job of renewing themselves through the Gonzo
trade and a comparison to the ’94 Braves who slipped slightly while
putting the pieces in place for further years would be a reasonable
one. Seattle’s problem will be the same as it always is, namely Mt.
Pinella erupting (and the pitching staff taking the brunt of the explosion).
As for the Angels, well they’re owned by the right corporation,
although there is some debate as to whether Mickey Mouse or Goofy would
be a better mascot.
This could be a great three-team race, but the A’s have the breakout potential
of Chavez and Grieve, a full season of Hudson, and some improvement from Appier
to look forward to. The Mariners were the favorites before they traded Griffey,
and even without him, they have a chance if they get someone to play left
(releasing Hunter is a good sign) and if Sasaki is as good as everyone claims he
is. But no team with Lou Piniella and young pitchers at the back of the
rotation can be expected to finish first. The Rangers are going to miss
Gonzalez this year, but they might not be the favorites even if they had kept
him. A rotation so dependent on Kenny Rogers and Darren Oliver doesn’t frighten
anyone, and neither Rodriguez nor Palmeiro should be expected to duplicate last
season. Unless all of their youngsters come through – certainly not an
impossible scenario – this is a distinctly average team. Which is a damn sight
better than what they have in Anaheim, where they have one franchise player, a
half-dozen malcontents, and one legitimate pitching prospect – whose health
record is worse than Evel Knievel’s.
The majors’ best race, one that could include three teams with five games
to go, is here. Oakland is the choice because of all the walks and power
and a significantly improved pitching staff, but the defense has to be a
huge concern, and none of the starters are locks for ERAs near or below 4.
Texas is in a breather year–they’ll be better in 2001 when the kids have
another year of experience under their belts–but could still sneak in 90
wins. Seattle didn’t do itself any favors in the Griffey deal, and their
rotation could implode at any time from Mount Lou’s abuse last year, but
there’s still a lot of talent there in all departments. With a better
manager, they’d be the favorites. Anaheim is listed fourth because I can’t
list them eighth.
The Rangers were part of the state of Texas’s clean
sweep of this winter’s "Best Trade" honors, swapping one year of
Juan Gonzalez for cheap solutions in right field, at second base and
in the bullpen. While we all know how much it helps them beyond 2000, most
people don’t realize that they’re a better team right now for having
made the trade. The A’s are the trendy pick, but teams who show marked
improvement in one year often slide back the next. I think it will be hard
for the A’s to get to the 90 wins it’s going to take to win the division as
they contend with less production from John Jaha, Matt Stairs
and Randy Velarde, plus a rotation sporting three guys–Omar
Olivares, Gil Heredia and Kevin Appier–who you can hear
ticking. The Mariners are going to hang around .500, and the Angels are
going to play baseball in Anaheim and cities around the country.
As a ligament-less Freddy Garcia is helped off the field after his third
consecutive 140+ pitch outing to increase his toughness, Lou Piniella
stands on the mound at Safeco Field, looks to the bullpen, which is
belching greasy black smoke up into the blue-grey summer sky, and realizes
that for the last three years, fans haven’t been yelling ‘Looooouuuu’,
they’ve been booing him. In the visitor’s dugout, Art Howe allows himself