It's an annual rite, but one that I find fun to look back on at the end of the season. I've heard a lot of projections over the past week or so, and wanted to put mine in ink before the season starts so I can brag come October. Starting East to West and with the American league, here goes:
American League East:
1. New York Yankees For the first time in a while, the Yankees are getting overlooked. Perhaps it's because the Red Sox won fairly easily last season and won the World Series, but a lot went right for that team. The fact of the matter is that the Yankees did win 94 games last season, including a 56-28 mark the last three months of the season. That's significant because they weren't fighting constant pitching injuries during that time period, and the team they had down the stretch was much more representative of the team they have now. The team figures to have much improved pitching staff just from the notion of pure depth. Instead of having to rely on Kei Igawa and Carl Pavano, the Yankees have youngsters Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy. Joba Chamberlain as a sixth starter doesn't seem to bad either.
2. Boston Red Sox They are the popular pick for the division title, but I don't see it. Jason Varitek is a year older, Mike Lowell can't stay great forever, and Jacoby Ellsbury is overrated (.426 career minor league slugging percentage translates to ~.370). A lot went right for Boston last season, including a very healthy pitching staff for much of the season. We are seeing already with Beckett and Schilling going down that they may actually have to scramble to find starting pitchers this season, something they didn't have to do last year.
3. Tampa Bay Rays Yeah, I may be driving this bandwagon, but there is a lot to like on this team. The defense figures to be much improved, which should in turn help the young pitching staff. The farm system is bulging with talent ready to graduate to the big leagues. I would expect a season similar to the Rockies last season when young talent bolsters the team to a second half surge. This team is no longer a joke, and will prove to be a team to be reckoned with.
4. Toronto Blue Jays Sometimes those in the media really out-think themselves. I've heard several people suggest the Jays are headed for a Wild Card run. I don't see it. I don't see any position where they are significantly better than they were last season, and I don't see the depth to deal with the likely injuries. Yes, Dustin Mcgowan is likely to take another step forward, but Shawn Marcum's flyball tendencies will lead him to taking a step back. Scott Rolen is a gimp, and David Eckstein isn't anywhere near what his reputation would lead one to believe. This team will be a tremendous disappointment.
5. Baltimore Orioles Rebuilding and proud of it. They have gaping holes at shortstop and the back end of the rotation, but winning this year clearly isn't the goal. It's great for them that they have decided to tear it all down. Running veterans out there and shooting for .500 simply doesn't get you anywhere.
American League Central:
1. Cleveland Indians Simply bulletin board material. As scary as it is, I felt they underperformed in a lot of places last season. Josh Barfield was a drain on the lineup, one that even an average performance from Asdrubal Cabrera would plug significantly. If they can straighten out the corner outfield spots, watch out. The pitching, on the other hand, is likely to take a step back. Fausto Carmona looks to regress significantly between the low strikeouts and the innings jump. Rafael Betancourt's career year is unlikely to repeat.
2. Detroit Tigers Miguel Cabrera was a huge pickup, as was Edgar Renteria, but there are some problems here. The bullpen seems to be a problem, but you never really know how that is going to shake out. The big problem for the Tigers is that Curtis Granderson and Magglio Ordonez had career years that are unlikely to be repeated. If they are, this projection is wrong, but I wouldn't be surprised if their regressions to the mean are merely offset by the contributions by Cabrera and Renteria. I also have serious doubts that the rotation can stay intact for much of the season. I'm trying to be biased, but I don't see a division title this year.
3. Chicago White Sox Made enough improvements filling last season's glaring holes to improve to around .500. Contrary to Kenny Williams' assertions, the Tigers should have no problems keeping up with them even after the acquisition of Miguel Cabrera. Linebrink will prove to be a tremendous waste of money, one that will hamper the team
4. Minnesota Losing Johan will hurt a lot. The offense still has serious question marks, as does the rotation. Francisco Liriano could save the team from last place, but if it takes him much past mid may to return, you could pencil Kansas City into the 4th spot. Delmon Young will be one to watch this year. He really showed a lot of warning signs last season with his plate discipline. If he doesn't take a step forward, time will be running out on him to become a star.
5. Kansas City I expect big things from Butler and Gordon as they mature another year. One guy I'm really interested in watching is Brian Bannister because of the interesting combination of a possible fluke season in 2007 and surprising intelligence. Zach Grienke is another guy who could re-emerge as a top starter this season. The Royals may need another infusion of talent to join the elite ranks. I've got Kansas City just a game or two behind Minnesota. If enough breaks their way, they could push for .500.
American League West:
1. Los Angeles Angels: This is a bit odd to see the Angels leading the division with their rotation anchors starting the season on the DL, but this division doesn't figure to be particularly strong. It will help their case if Lackey can return on or ahead of schedule, but Kelvim Escobar is out for the season. I expect a bounce back season from Ervin Santana, but am a bit skeptical of Jon Garland and Joe Saunders. In the bullpen, Scott Shields appears to be a significant loss if his injury is serious. Offensively, the team has depth at almost every position and can handle any injury that comes their way. While Vlad Guerrero is the only true star the Angels will field, they will rarely have a hole in their lineup due to that depth.
2. Oakland Athletics: The Mariners seem to be the popular pick here, but I'll take Oakland. There's a lot to like about this Oakland team. Most notably, Rich Harden appears to finally be healthy. When he is healthy, the man can flat out pitch. I'm assuming at least 150 quality innings out of Harden, innings that will certainly provide them with a few victories. I'm also partial to teams with burgeoning young talent. The likes of Daric Barton, Carlos Gonzalez, Gio Gonzalez, and others could step in and give this team a boost that may not be needed to make some noise in a suddenly weak division.
3. Seattle Mariners: The Mariners won 88 games last year, tied with the Tigers and finished a strong second place in the West. Many pundits have them contending for the division and wild card. I disagree. The team did pick up Erik Bedard in the offseason, unloading Adam Jones in the process. The problem is that they were outscored last year. They should have only won about 80 games. I don't see any offensive position where they are likely to improve, and short of Jeff Clement and the overrated Wladamir Balentien, I don't see any depth that will help them through injuries. The bullpen is likely to take a large step back. Even with the addition of Bedard, this is an 80-win team at best. You could make a case they'll still finish above Oakland, but pound for pound, they are similar teams in talent. If somebody says Seattle is a team on the rise, they probably don't know what they are talking about.
4. Texas Rangers: The Rangers completely reloaded at the trade deadline last season, as they went full bore into their rebuilding process. I will contend that they are still a couple of years away. There aren't many pitchers there that inspire much confidence that they will be able to keep runs off the board. There is a ton of talent there, and a reasonably intelligent guy running the show. They should be back by 2010.
I'll get the National League tommorow.