I'm going to save the AL West until Monday even though most already know what I think about the division by now. The good news...the A's broke camp pretty much 100 percent healthy. The bad news...Macha now has to make a lot of lineup decisions.
But the American League appears to have a much better group of teams than the National League. The American League featured five 90+ win teams to the National League's two (Cardinals and the Braves, who barely made it at 90 wins). The Yankees, Red Sox, White Sox, Indians and Angels all won 90+ games in 2005. All of those teams have a good chance to do the same in 2006 in addition to Oakland, Texas, Minnesota, Detroit and Toronto.
But let's start with the division that everyone seems to love or love to hate. The AL East.
This division gets the most media scrutiny and coverage because of the inherent fascination with the Yankees and Red Sox rivalry. Toronto made a lot of changes, getting a new starter in A.J. Burnett (who is already headed for the DL because of an elbow issue), a new closer in B.J. Ryan and a slugging third baseman in Troy "Lip" Glaus. The Orioles did little other than bring aboard the sub-.300 OBP Corey Patterson, the inconsistent Kevin Millar and Mr. Anna Benson. The team has a lot of good, solid young pitching who could flourish under the tutelage of Leo Mazzone. Erik Bedard, Hayden Penn and Daniel Cabrera are three quality arms. Can Mazzone finally get into that untapped potential? The Devil Rays have so much young talent in their system. This team will drive a lot of teams (especially ones with Jason Kendall catching) because of their pure team speed. Gathright and Crawford can just go crazy on the basepaths. Baldelli should be healthy this year and Huff should have a bounce-back year. But they still aren't ready to compete with the big boys.
This is how I see the division shaking down:
- Red Sox: I hate to say it, but the Sox have adequately reloaded enough to beat the Yankees. Coco Crisp is more than a good replacement for Damon and if Josh Beckett can avoid the DL, they have the best pitching in the East despite Schilling and Wells's advanced age. Foulke seems to slowly be regaining his health as well.
- Yankees: The Blue Jays made improvements, but not enough to pass this team yet. The rotation is a bit patchwork and older. Sure, Chacon can possibly duplicate his excellent run with the Yankees and Johnson and Mussina could be effective still, but I'm just not anticipating it. No one needs to question the offense. Damon, Jeter, A-Rod, Sheffield, Matsui, Giambi. It's a ridiculous amount of skill and talent.
- Blue Jays: Glaus and Overbay could be huge additions to a mediocre offense. Vernon Wells is great and is having a good spring, but this team's pitching will miss Orlando Hudson's defense behind them. There's a chance that Halladay and Burnett could pitch this team into contention, but I still think it falls short in 2006.
- Orioles: Brian Roberts, Melvin Mora, Miguel Tejada. This team has a decent offense and could be making additions by subtracting big-time distractions like Sosa and Palmeiro. I mentioned their young pitching earlier and if it comes around, the Orioles could surprise a few this year.
- Devil Rays: Crawford and Gathright at the top of the lineup with Huff, Gomes and Baldelli waiting to drive them in. There isn't a problem with the Devil Rays offense. It's the team's pitching. Scott Kazmir is talented and the team does now have formerly highly-touted (seemingly for years now) Edwin Jackson. But other than that, the pitching for the Rays is shaky.
The World Champions, the young up and coming team that probably should've won the division last year, the team with Johan Santana, the team with the camera-chucking-champ and well, Kansas City. The AL Central would be the toughest division is the AL if not for the presence of the Royals. Thanks to Felix Hernandez, the AL West no longer has one of those teams.
The White Sox have the pitching, everyone knows that. But the team restocked with a rejuvenated (judging from spring training numbers) Jim Thome on offense. It also added Javier Vazquez to a pitching staff the tore through the playoffs last year. I think the loss of Aaron Rowand will affect the team's offense more than people think because he's such a quality center fielder. But the World Champs have a nice blend on offense of speed and pop if Thome can remain healthy. Konerko is back and Jermaine Dye is still a quality right fielder.
The Cleveland Indians have a remarkably good offense that could even be better if Andy Marte fights his way onto the big club within the first few months of the season. They have Victor Martinez who is unquestionably the best hitting catcher in the AL right now (Joe Mauer isn't there just yet). They have Hafner, Peralta, Belliard and Sizemore. The offense is good and was the best in the division last season. It's also young and likely to just continue to get better. The pitching could be a concern in losing Kevin Millwood, but they still have Sabathia, Westbrook, Lee and have added Paul Byrd to that group. The bullpen did take quite a hit in losing Riske and Howry. I also think Wickman was an aberration last year. Anyone who watched Wickman on a regular basis know he saved a lot of his games Billy Koch-style. The bullpen is my biggest concern when it comes to the Tribe.
As for the Twins, the Twins offense is their biggest concern. Many think that the Twins actually have the best rotation in baseball and if you look at their ability to keep the walks down and people off the basepaths, that very well could be the case. Add Francisco Liriano to that group and I think it could certainly match up with any group in the American League. But the offense could make a pretty big leap forward if younger players like Morneau and Mauer can fulfill that enormous potential. But I'm just frightened of any team that will have Tony Batista in their offense.
The Tigers have become a little bit of a pick-du-jour. Skip Bayless actually said yesterday that he expects the team to wind up with the Wild Card. I think the Tigers made a smart addition in Kenny Rogers (although not at the dollars). He adds a veteran presence to a team that has had inconsistent pitching for years. I'm just not sold on the rest of the rotation after Rogers and Bonderman. Offensively, Curtis Granderson has finally made the team, which will help. With Pudge, Ordonez, Guillen and Polanco, the offense is good. But without pitching, teams can't compete.
Oh, Kansas City. You've tried to do right by your fans. You did add some of the hardest-to-spell names available on the free agent market. Grudzikiewicz comes to town, assuring that beat reporters will likely miss their deadlines due to spell checking names. In fairness to Baird and the Royals, they do have a better mix of younger players like Teahen, Berroa and DeJesus. They also added a great presence in Reggie Sanders who has been in the playoffs pretty much every year since Ty Cobb left the game. But this team needs a rotation. It's somewhat makeshift when you have Joe Mays competing for a spot.
With all that being said, this is how I see the division finishing:
- Indians: I know, they have become en vogue to pick for this championship. The caveat for this team being whether or not the bullpen is completely nuclear or not. The offense can mash and the starting pitching should be able to get the job done.
- White Sox: The White Sox will win the Wild Card in the American League. I think that the East teams made enough of an improvement to assure that the World Champs will secure a spot in the postseason. Thome will have a big season, but Vazquez has yet to recapture his Montreal magic. Bobby Jenks will probably not finish the season as the team's closer.
- Twins: If Morneau and Mauer mature and become major contributors, the Twins could sneak into competition for the division. Liriano should be in that rotation sooner rather than later. Perhaps he isn't ready, but he has Felix Hernandez-type of ability.
- Tigers: Perhaps this offense can propel the team into contention. But the rotation, other than Rogers and Bonderman, has yet to prove its mettle to me. Maybe Robertson and Maroth can get the job done, but I just don't see it.
- Royals: No rotation, no contention. Not yet. Affeldt and Greinke could get there (if Greinke could work his stuff out), but unfortunately for Royals fans, they aren't there yet.
What about the Red Sox and Yankees? Did the Blue Jays make enough changes to catch them? Will the Orioles surprise with the young pitching and Mazzone?
Let's hear what you think, AN.