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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
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