I know a lot of you could care less about major league baseball, but it is my favorite of the professional sports, regardless of steroids controversies, past work stoppages, a wimpy commissioner, etc.
Please bear with me while I make my early-season prognostications! Here I will give you my thoughts on the divisions in each league, and who might make it to the World Series this year. Today it will be the American League.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST:
1. Los Angeles Angels – Probably the strongest team in a division that really isn’t all that strong. OF Vladimir Guerrero leads the hitting, and ’05 Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon leads a deep pitching staff. 3B Chone Figgins not only has a great name, but he is an exciting player who can hit for average and steal bases. New free-agent pitcher Jeff Weaver has never quite fulfilled expectations wherever he has played, but if he and P Kelvim Escobar can throw well this season, he will combine with them and John Lackey to make a very formidable rotation.
2. Oakland Athletics – GM Billy Beane is a master at making good trades and signing decent free agents despite his organization’s limited budget. If this winter’s additions (DH Frank Thomas and OF Milton Bradley) stay healthy, they will join 1B Dan Johnson and 3B Eric Chavez in an already potent lineup. Young pitchers Rich Harden, Danny Haren and Joe Blanton should help the rotation stay great for the next few years, and Huston Street is a good young stopper for their bullpen. They may have enough talent to overtake the Angels.
3. Seattle Mariners – My favorite team. Generally chosen for 4th place in the division this year, the M’s will surprise a lot of people by being competitive most of the season, reaching the .500 mark for the first time in several years. New P Jarrod Washburn will anchor the rotation, and phenom P Felix Hernandez will provide plenty of excitement. The rest of the rotation and the bullpen are a bit suspect. Second-year players SS Yuniesky Betancourt , 2B Jose Lopez and CF Jeremy Reed are already showing signs of maturation, and newcomers C Kenji Johjima and DH/LF Carl Everett may add some pop. Look for returning vets RF Ichiro ,1B Richie Sexson and LF/DH Raul Ibanez to continue their good hitting. Will 3B Adrian Beltre regain his 48-HR form from two years ago? If so, and if pitchers Gil Meche and Joel Pineiro realize their potential, the M’s could challenge for second place.
4. Texas Rangers – This team plays in one of the worst ballparks in the majors for pitchers: the stadium is primarily for hitters, and the heat can get unbearable in Arlington late in the season. While the team usually has good hitting (i.e. 1B Mark Teixeira, SS Michael Young, 3B Hank Blalock, to name but a few), the pitching is almost always poor. During the winter, Texas signed free-agent Kevin Millwood, who led the AL in ERA last year while with Cleveland. They also traded with San Diego for P Adam Eaton. Millwood got rocked in his first outing, and Eaton is already injured. If this team could ever have some good fortune with its pitching, it would challenge for second , or maybe even first place.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL DIVISION
1. Chicago White Sox – I have to go with the champs to repeat this year. They have a deep pitching staff, and their roster has loads of talent and many interchangeable parts. Manager Ozzie Guillen did a great job with using his players last year, and this year should be no different.
2. Detroit Tigers – I may be going out on a limb here, but I have always been a Tigers fan, and it looks like new manager Jim Leyland has things going in the right direction after a few miserable years with Alan Trammell at the helm. Free-agent P Kenny Rogers should help Mike Maroth, Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson in the rotation. Young OF Curtis Granderson has great skills. OF veteran Magglio Ordonez and veteran C Ivan Rodriguez look healthy this spring. Young 1B Chris Shelton has been lights-out at the plate thus far, and if SS Carlos Guillen can stay healthy for a full season, their lineup will be a sort of Murderer’s Row. With decent pitching this year, the Tigers will surprise a lot of people.
3. Cleveland Indians – This is a team with some great young talent at their positions in C Victor Martinez, 2B Ronnie Belliard, OF Grady Sizemore, SS Jhonny Peralta (yes, that is spelled correctly) and RF Casey Blake. Cliff Lee and Jake Westbrook will anchor the rotation, with veterans Paul Byrd and Jason Johnson contributing. Bob Wickman is a good closer when he is healthy; the rest of the bullpen should be adequate. I think the Indians’ pitching may not be strong enough to carry them to a division title, but they are a good ballclub.
4. Minnesota Twins – This smaller-market team usually finds ways to be competitive. Few of their players are household names. This year’s edition of the Twins includes four veterans (OFs Shannon Stewart and Torii Hunter, 3B Tony Batista and 2B Luis Castillo) who should carry the lineup along, with youngsters C Joe Mauer and 1B Justin Morneau helping out. Minnesota also has some of the better versatility in the AL from utility players such as Michael Cuddyer, Nick Punto and Lew Ford. In the rotation, young Johan Santana is outstanding, and veteran Brad Radke defines consistency. After those two, the rotation seems somewhat lacking. The bullpen, after the excellent closer Joe Nathan, appears similar to the rotation in quality. Despite choosing the Twins to finish fourth in their division, I view them as a .500 team, or better. Manager Ron Gardenhire always finds a way to get the best out of his roster.
5. Kansas City Royals – Alas, poor Kansas City. During the winter, they hired some journeyman free agent players in an effort to try and be competitive, but the talent just doesn’t seem to be enough for more than about 65 to 70 wins at best unless the planets align perfectly, and then they might only be good for 75. Mark Grudzialanek at 2B? Matt Stairs and Doug Mientkewicz at 1B? A rotation that appears to have Scott Elarton as the #1 starter? Their better relievers Zach Greinke and Mike MacDougal are on the disabled list, and unproven Ambiorix Burgos is leading the bullpen? At least he has a great name. All in all? It just doesn't look good.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
1. New York Yankees – The Satan of baseball, the Yanks are eternally good due to the largesse of owner George Steinbrenner, universally loathed by major league fans unless they are fans of the Yankees. Who wouldn’t love to have an owner who buys the best players in the game every winter? Their OF of Johnny Damon, Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui is excellent. Their infield of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano and Jason Giambi is a great one. Jorge Posada is a good catcher. All of the above are good hitters. In the pitching department, future Hall-Of-Famer Randy Johnson, now 42, leads the rotation. The also-ancient Mike Mussina contributes, as do the younger Shawn Chacon and Chien-Ming Wang. Mariano Rivera is still one of the best relievers in the game. After those pitchers, the rest of the staff is “iffy”. Pitching could be the Yankees’ achilles’ heel, but I’m not sure if the other teams in the division are loaded-up enough to surpass New York.
2. Boston Red Sox –One has to admire the hitting of DH David Ortiz and OF Manny Ramirez. New 3B Mike Lowell, a winter Florida Marlins castoff, hopes to return to form after an off-year last season, and new CF Coco Crisp may have the best name in the majors this year (he also hits well). Trot Nixon hopes to return to form in RF, and C Jason Varitek is steady and workmanlike behind the plate. If starting pitcher Curt Schilling is healthy, the rotation will be average. If not, I doubt that fellow rotation members Matt Clement, Tim Wakefield and Josh Beckett are going to provide enough outs to get the Sox into first. Young Jon Papelbon might get to start some games, and if he is ready he can help. Keith Foulke is a good closer when he is healthy, and the rest of the bullpen is generally dependable. All in all, the main concerns are 1) can everyone stay healthy, 2) will the new infield work out, and 3) will the rotation hold together?
3. Baltimore Orioles – Sorry, but this franchise needs a new owner. The once-proud O’s have been been driven into the ground by owner Peter Angelos and some poor decisions from their GMs. However, there is a very positive note this year: the acquisition of pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who guided Atlanta Braves pitching to high levels for years. Baltimore has some good young pitchers, and a key to team success may be how much magic Mazzone really has with the kids and with a sort-of reclaimation project like veteran P Kris Benson. I happen to believe his presence will make a big difference this year. Their young closer Chris Ray is going to be a good one. The O’s have a very good everyday lineup, which features SS Miguel Tejada, CF Luis Matos, 3B Melvin Mora, 2B Brian Roberts, RF Jay Gibbons and C Ramon Hernandez.
4. Tampa Bay Devil Rays – You heard this here first. I doubt if any other people around the country are thinking the Rays can finish above last place in the AL East. Why do I think they’ll do this well? Their offense. OF Jonny Gomes, 2B Jorge Cantu, OF Carl Crawford and OF Rocco Baldelli are highly-skilled youngsters on the verge of being stars. The same goes for young pitchers Scott Kazmir and Seth McClung, although I think it is pitching that will inevitably kill the Rays’ chances of being much more than a .500 team. They don’t really have a very good bullpen, at least on paper, but the team should score a lot of runs, steal a lot of bases, and play an aggressive style of ball that will be lots of fun to watch.
5. Toronto Blue Jays – I am probably one of the few people who believe Toronto has a meciocre-to-bad ballclub. The Jays were one of the winter’s biggest spenders. For starters, they forked out loads of cash for free agent P A.J. Burnett, who already has a sore right elbow. P Roy Halladay is excellent, but the rest of the rotation is pretty average at best. Outside of OF Vernon Wells and 3B Troy Glaus, the everyday lineup is not what I would call scary by any means. Closer B.J. Ryan will save ballgames, but I think this ballclub is destined to win 70-75 games tops due to injuries and due to basically just not being terrifically good.
Next: the National League