I’m not sure what we consider Opening Day any longer. With Tuesday at 6 a.m., Sunday at 8 p.m., and Monday at 1 p.m. all vying for the honor, I figure if you average it out, the season started Thursday at about 5:30 in the afternoon. So Happy Belated Opening Day, everyone!

The following are my rankings of the American League’s teams, 1-14, based on how I think they’ll perform this season. The AL has definitely cleaved itself into two tiers, with seven teams vying for four playoff spots, and the other seven in various stages of building. Moreover, the gap between the #6 and #7 teams in the AL is wide enough to fit about half of the NL, maybe more. Other than the Orioles, though, there are no really bad teams in the AL.

The records below are based strictly on runs scored and runs allowed projections; I have made no attempt to figure which teams might deviate based on having particularly good or bad bullpens. Obviously, I have no way of knowing which teams will catch a good year on stuff like hitting late in games. What we can predict with some certainty is runs; how those runs fall is, well, why they play the games.

  1. Boston Red Sox (96-66, 847 RS, 701 RA). Two months ago, this prediction might have been a bit rosier. The loss of Curt Schilling dings the runs allowed figure a bit, although it’s complicated by the fact that Clay Buchholz will pick up some of the innings. The decline in offense is predicated on bounces from J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo not offsetting slips by David Ortiz-who was amazing last year-Jason Varitek, and Mike Lowell. Even with all that, this is the best team in baseball.

  2. New York Yankees (95-67, 891 RS, 744 RA). The Yankees’ offense is going to be much less impressive this season, as neither Alex Rodriguez nor Jorge Posada can be expected to reprise their team-carrying ’07 lines, and there’s no way the rest of the team makes up for the falloff. However, an upgraded back end of the rotation is going to make a big difference in the number of runs they allow overall. Ian Kennedy and Philip Hughes don’t have to be stars; just solid league-average innings will be fine. The bullpen is a bit shaky before the eighth inning, and that fact will make it hard to execute the “Joba Chamberlain to the rotation in midseason” plan. He might not start five times this year.

  3. Detroit Tigers (93-69, 921 RS, 796 RA). I was surprised at how unimpressive the Tigers looked when I started running the numbers. They could give up a lot more runs than the 796 I have them at, depending on when they get Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney back, and how healthy key players stay. They will score, but again, team age and injury risk mean wide error bars on that figure. The gap between the Tigers and the Indians is much smaller than I expected it to be.

  4. Cleveland Indians (91-71, 833 RS, 734 RA). The Indians should allow more runs, as both C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona regress a bit from last season’s career years, and the Rafael section of the bullpen does the same. They have the potential to score a lot more, however, especially if young players Franklin Gutierrez, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Andy Marte develop as hoped. Travis Hafner will have a better year, and Grady Sizemore will be one of the top five players in the AL. My persistent pessimism about this team this winter and spring has been unwarranted; they may not make the postseason, but they are a lot closer to the Tigers than the team’s respective offseasons would have you believe, and they’re deep.

  5. Toronto Blue Jays (91-71, 761 RS, 676 RA). The Blue Jays could be even better than this if David Eckstein pulls something, which would allow John McDonald and his +20 glove onto the field. The defensive gap between the two players makes up for Eckstein’s edge at the plate, especially given the number of ground-ball pitcher that make up the Toronto pitching staff. The Jays need OBP as well, hence the signing of Eckstein, but there are other ways for them to get it. I have the Jays leading the AL in runs allowed by a wide margin; they have good pitching and the best defense in the league. There’s enough offensive upside here in Vernon Wells and Scott Rolen for them to steal the division.

  6. Los Angeles Angels (87-75, 808 RS, 752 RA). The Angels are picking the right year to lose 180 innings of good pitching, as the rest of the AL West is quite unimpressive. The team defense will help, especially if they can run their best three defensive outfielders out there once in a while-to do this, Garret Anderson or Vladimir Guerrero will have to share DH and a bench or DL slot. An Ervin Santana comeback is pretty critical in the wake of Kelvim Escobar‘s injury; I think he’ll have an ERA under 4.00.

  7. Texas Rangers (80-82, 840 RS, 849 RA). I’m a bit surprised at how good the Rangers look, but it’s a function of the outfield upgrades over the offseason on top of the potential for one healthy season from Hank Blalock. If I had to pick a surprise team in the AL, it would be this one; the Rangers could get a combined 70 decent starts from Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla, and terrific bargain pickup Jason Jennings to make a run at the postseason. With so many injury cases on the roster, the Rangers could win anywhere from 69 to 92 games, depending on DL days.

  8. Seattle Mariners (80-82, 751 RS, 760 RA). Those who think the Erik Bedard trade will make a difference are correct. Having Bedard make 30 starts instead of the back end of last year’s rotation is worth 30 or 40 runs. However, that’s not the only thing that’s changing. The Mariners’ 2007 bullpen in front of J.J. Putz and George Sherrill allowed runs at a rate far less than the quality of its pitching would indicate. Last season’s lineup hit for an average, .287, that won’t be repeated. The team defense, a strength in recent years, continues to age, especially in the outfield. Bedard simply cancels out some of the runs the 2008 Mariners were going to be giving back, and that won’t be enough to keep the team in contention.

  9. Tampa Bay Rays (77-85, 812 RS, 850 RA). This amounts to considerable pessimism about the Rays, who have been pegged as a contender by PECOTA and a .500 team by many, even me, right up until this piece. The thing is, the Rays allowed 944 runs last season, and that’s a lot of runs; lopping off 96 runs in one year is a lot. The Rays have upgraded their defense and bullpen, and should be better in the rotation, but how many runs can one team realistically save from one season to the next? I’m even more cautious about the runs they’ll score; Carlos Pena isn’t going to hit like Albert Pujols again, so even a 30-run gain means they have to make up 50 everywhere else in the lineup. All things considered, an 11-win improvement would be a pretty good year.

  10. Chicago White Sox (76-86, 765 RS, 812 RA). The additions of Nick Swisher, Orlando Cabrera, and Alexei Ramirez should drive a significant gain at the plate, and before I got into this, I thought that might be enough. Unfortunately, the Sox were very, very bad last year, which means even a 70-run bump up won’t be enough to make them a fringe contender. The bullpen is better, and the defense about the same, but the starting pitching’s a little bit worse. The Sox are going to have to start getting production from the farm system to get good again.

  11. Oakland Athletics (74-88, 684 RS, 743 RA). The question here is how many starts the team gets from Rich Harden and Joe Blanton, whether because those two pitchers are traded, hurt, or some combination thereof. I suspect that the number is somewhere under 45, hence the record projected above. I don’t see a lot of runs here-57 fewer than last season-as they break in some hitters with an eye towards 2010. All this, of course, means that Moneyball was a fraud.

  12. Kansas City Royals (74-88, 722 RS, 788 RA). There are things to like here, like the emergence of an acceptable pitching staff, and the core of a good lineup. This isn’t a year in which significant gains can be made, just small improvements in a tough division. The most important thing the Royals will do this year is draft. With the right moves on the margins, they could be a surprise team in 2009.

  13. Minnesota Twins (74-88, 672 RS, 737 RA). Even including Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, this is going to be one of the worst offensive teams in the league. It’s not going to be that good defensively, either, which won’t help a pitching staff-and especially a rotation-that needs help from the gloves. I suspect theat they could allow a lot more runs than that, but I may be blinded by my high opinion of Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, and Anthony Swarzak.

  14. Baltimore Orioles (57-105, 670 RS, 915 RA). The worst team in the league, and it’s not even close. The record includes the assumption that they’ll come to their senses and trade Brian Roberts to the Cubs, which will leave them with Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and 23 reasons to watch the Nationals. This is a process that’s been delayed far too long, and while it will make for some ugly baseball in the short term, it’s the only way the the Orioles will ever again be a good team.

Thank you for reading

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