Where the National League might be broken down into three categories-the Cubs, the seven other likely contenders for the other three playoff slots, and the exasperated eight-the American League is even more strangely stratified and more divisionally driven. In the AL East, once again fighting for the two playoff spots that go with the division title and the league’s Wild Card, you have the league’s three best teams. In the AL Central, all five teams can entertain reasonable hope; in the AL West, at least three of four in the short stack. When at least 11 of 14 teams have statistically reasonable bids for October entry, while you can’t call it parity because of the beasts in the East, you can call it entertaining.
If there’s a potential surprise anywhere in BP’s PECOTA-projected standings for the AL, it might be found in our expectations of a newly mild, mild West. Although the Angels won a franchise-record 100 games last season, that was in no small part because of their outperforming their expected finish by an all-time record 13 games. Operate from that starting point, delete Mark Teixeira, and anticipate a good amount of lost ground from the pitching staff-especially Joe Saunders, but also from a bullpen that helped the Halos finish an MLB-best 31-21 in one-run games-and you’ve got a .500 ballclub. That let’s the A’s nose ever so slightly ahead with a much-improved offense, but questions in their rotation as well as ongoing concerns over how healthy injury-prone infielders Eric Chavez, Mark Ellis, and Jason Giambi will be make for top two teams whose bids are fragile enough that the Mariners could easily sneak into the picture should they get out to a good start. Fail that, though, and it’s not hard to see new GM Jack Zduriencik start breaking down his team for parts to get something for free agents-to-be like Erik Bedard and Adrian Beltre.
The Central’s fun because we’re already projecting it to be a relatively tight group. From the Indians‘ projected 86 wins to the Royals‘ last-place tally of 75, there is no division quite as competitive top to bottom as this one. The Indians’ bid would be a lot more secure if they could guarantee big bouncebacks from Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner, not to mention a speedy arrival of a completely ready Matt LaPorta, to give their lineup some big bats behind Grady Sizemore. Getting those kinds of improvements would make a big difference for a lineup that otherwise has to make do with a certain amount of mediocrity from power positions like first base and left field. Run prevention is also a source of concern, but that’s because of uncertainty in the rotation, from the front end to the fifth man-does anyone know what comes next for Cliff Lee, let alone Fausto Carmona? And will this year’s bullpen combust as spectacularly as several past pen combinations have, or will Kerry Wood provide the sort of stability that lets Eric Wedge use set-up assets like Rafael Betancourt, Rafael Perez, and Jensen Lewis to good effect? The reductionism of baseline projections make the Indians look like a rather mediocre contender, but there’s enough upside play to identify the Tribe as the one team in the Central with a solid shot at 90 wins or more.
For the rest, the Tigers‘ decision to go monkey-see/monkey-do and make like last season’s Rays and go for an infield makeover keeps them closest to the Tribe, but here again, questions over which starters they can count on make them an unpredictable commodity. It’s for that reason that the White Sox and Twins can make sustained plays for the title-both teams have quality in the front end of their rotations that you could see propelling either back to the postseason. If the White Sox can get good work from Jose Contreras and/or Bartolo Colon to give another power-driven lineup enough winnable ballgames, and if run prevention doesn’t suffer with Alexei Ramirez‘s move to short, the Sox might have another laugh at the expense of those ready to count them out. If the Twins can find a way to shore up one of the league’s weaker offenses, they’re also in the hunt, though losing Joe Mauer early reflects how little the franchise has to go on once you get past a very few key hitters. The Royals become least-likely because they have problems on both sides of the ball, with the back three in the rotation all engendering questions that a made-over bullpen can’t fix. Getting more offense from slow-developing sluggers like Alex Gordon and Billy Butler could compensate for the shortcomings of Jose Guillen and Mike Jacobs as middle-of-the-order power sources.
Which brings us to the question for the junior circuit in the East-between the now-traditional Bronx vs. Boston tilt, and now with those Florida arrivistes, the Rays, upsetting that applecart and winning last year’s pennant, three teams enter, but only two teams leave. Which one gets left behind? The cream of the league is so tightly grouped that it’s easy to envision any scenario that involves play-in games after the regular season, and all three teams can already be second-guessed before we’ve played a single game: Going without an A-Rod replacement during his injury-induced absence? Sending down David Price? Missing Manny? All three teams will spend the season under the microscope, but where the Rays are a young team built to last and the Red Sox have a core of veteran talent that should be shored up in-season with reinforcements like John Smoltz, the Yankees have to hope this year’s hasty pudding gels fast. With this winter’s big-ticket free agents added to aging pillars Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte, can they make our expectation that theirs is the game’s best pitching staff stand up? If A.J. Burnett comes up short of our projections or Joba Chamberlain breaks down, you can kiss that league-best record good-bye, bank on another Bomber-free October, and watch and wonder if next winter’s the offseason of the long knives in the Bronx.
Even the teams you have to feel for have reasons to feel good. While the Jays and Orioles are damned and doomed to the bottom of baseball’s best division, both feature worthwhile prospects worth following-starting off with Matt Wieters in Baltimore and Travis Snider north of the border-with more to come at the tail end of the season. The Orioles and Rangers can’t really anticipate changing fortunes until two of the best collections of young pitching anywhere in baseball begin to come up towards the end of the season, while the Jays have to hope another season squandered on long-term deals with offensive mediocrities doesn’t whittle down what interest remains in any pitching staff that can boast Doc Halladay’s latest bid for a Cy Young.
East W-L RS RA AVG/ OBP/ SLG Yankees 99-63 801 634 .264/.337/.413 Red Sox 95-67 846 715 .268/.346/.434 Rays 94-68 814 690 .255/.336/.418 Blue Jays 76-86 713 755 .254/.320/.405 Orioles 75-87 822 891 .268/.336/.431 Central W-L RS RA AVG/ OBP/ SLG Indians 86-76 818 774 .260/.336/.420 Tigers 80-82 789 802 .262/.327/.421 White Sox 76-86 779 828 .253/.322/.431 Twins 76-86 746 792 .264/.326/.394 Royals 75-87 737 792 .262/.321/.407 West W-L RS RA AVG/ OBP/ SLG Athletics 84-78 781 755 .252/.332/.406 Angels 81-81 777 777 .264/.326/.410 Mariners 77-85 719 753 .260/.318/.399 Rangers 70-92 795 909 .261/.327/.430
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .