MLB Preview: American League

The $254 Million Man

The Yankees have finally won a game, so all is right with the baseball world. But John S still hasn’t broken down the American League, so has the season really begun?

AL West

1. Texas Rangers

2. Los Angeles Angels*

3. Oakland Athletics

4. Seattle Mariners

On a scale of 1 to 10, how scared are you of Albert Pujols joining the American League? Well, he’s not in the AL East, so I’m not that scared. I’m more concerned about his ability to drain the next few MVP races of any real intrigue…

Pick a number! OK, OK… 8. It is interesting how changing leagues can totally change how I view a player. When someone is in the NL, I can be somewhat objective about him, evaluating him on talent or personality. But when a player is in the AL, I judge him almost entirely on how he affects the Yankees. I bear grudges against any player who beats the Yankees dramatically (Damn you, Marco Scutaro, for your walk-off home run against Mariano Rivera in 2007!), or who robs a Yankee of a personal achievement (Damn you, Josh Hamilton for stealing Robinson Cano’s MVP in 2010! Damn you, Justin Morneau, for stealing Derek Jeter’s in 2006! And damn you, Pat Hentgen, for stealing Andy Pettitte’s Cy Young in 1996!), or insults a Yankee (Damn you, Dallas Braden, for your insolent mound bullshit in 2010!).

So, basically, it’s only a matter of time before I go from generally liking Pujols and respecting him as possibly the greatest hitter ever, to hating him and coming up with reasons he should be kept out of the Hall of Fame.

At least you’re being upfront about not being objective at all. If you’re so scared of Pujols, why don’t you have the Angels winning the West? Have you seen these Angels? They are, apart from Pujols, eminently mediocre. After the contract was announced, Baseball Tonight did the whole “show the team’s new lineup and marvel at how amazing it is” thing, but the problem was that, even with Pujols, the Angels lineup wasn’t that impressive. Their most impressive hitter last year was Mark Trumbo, who now has to find a new position thanks to Pujols’ arrival.

Los Angeles has huge holes in its lineup, with Vernon Wells still playing every day and Erick Aybar hitting in the leadoff spot. Chris Iannetta is a huge offensive upgrade when you start with Jeff Mathis, but he’s still not that great, and he’s been significantly worse away from Coors Field. The real offensive threats in this lineup are either old, like Torii Hunter or Bobby Abreu, or unpredictable, like Howie Kendrick or Kendrys Morales coming back from missing almost two full years. Pujols will obviously make them better, but he won’t make them much more than a league average offense, if that.

So? Do they need to be any better with that pitching staff? Fair point. C.J. Wilson gives the Angels them three great starters, complementing Dan Haren and Jered Weaver, who is coming off his best year. Plus, Ervin Santana broke his streak of bad odd-number years last year!*

*Though this may be bad news, since now his even-numbered years could suffer.

Having said that, I think some people are overrating the effect Wilson will have. People think highly of Wilson because he was the best pitcher on a playoff team, and he responded great to the departure of Cliff Lee last year. Plus, his famously clean lifestyle and the fact that he’s moving from a hitters’ park to a pitchers’ park (with Peter Bourjos patrolling center) make him seem like a safe bet to improve this year. But we tend to forget that he’s really only been a starter two years, and that his first year wasn’t particularly dominant. He’s a good addition, but he doesn’t make this rotation as intimidating as a Phillies or Giants staff.

But the Angels stole him from the competition! Not only does their rotation get better, but Texas’ gets worse. So who’s the favorite now? …Still Texas, if you ask me. Wilson was definitely the Rangers’ best pitcher last year, but the rest of the staff was better than anticipated. Matt Harrison and Derek Holland put together solid years, and the bullpen was very good. It’s unclear what they’ll get this year from Yu Darvish or Colby Lewis, but moving Neftali Feliz into the rotation gives them some margin for error: I don’t really approve of Alexi Ogando starting the season in the bullpen (since pitchers should start if they are good enough), but he can move back to the rotation if any of the starting five don’t work out.

More importantly, that rotation only has to be so good, since Texas’ offense is good enough to win games if the pitching staff can hold its own. In 2011, the Rangers were more than one run per game better than their division rivals.

Yeah, but is that sustainable? Can we expect Michael Young to be a legitimate MVP candidate again? First of all, Young was not a “legitimate” MVP candidate last year.

Second of all, maybe the most impressive thing about Texas’ lineup last year was how good it was without anyone having an unreasonably good year. Even Young—who was only an MVP candidate to those who still think RBIs matter—wasn’t any better than he was in ’09. Similarly, Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler, and Yorvit Torrealba all had good years, but not career-bests. A few of the team’s stars, like Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz, actually had pretty disappointing seasons—it’s not reasonable to expect both to bounce back.

The only real exception to this trend was Mike Napoli, who was the team’s best hitter last season. He put up unprecedented numbers in his first year after being dumped by the Angels, but this was probably due to not catching full-time. Texas will probably give him even more time at first base or DH this year, so he may well be just as good.

Basically, the Rangers’ lineup is more likely to get better this year than get worse.

So Texas has good hitting but mediocre pitching, and LA has good pitching but mediocre hitting. Doesn’t good pitching beat good hitting? That’ cliché is incredibly imprecise. Plus, I think it generally refers to a specific game. Over the course of a full season, I’d rather bet on good hitting—it’s more reliable.

Also, calling the Angels’ hitting “mediocre” is a little generous—outside of Pujols, it’s more like “bad.”

Are you sure you don’t want to do something crazy, like pick Oakland to win this division, like you did last year? Obviously, my grasp of West Coast baseball is tenuous at best. In all fairness, the A’s did pitch pretty well last season, but the—ahem—additions of David DeJesus and Hideki Matsui did not have the offensive impact I anticipated. This year’s lineup doesn’t look much better.

Still, though, I’ll be rooting for the A’s, since they have the best tweeter in all of baseball.

AL Central

1. Detroit Tigers

2. Kansas City Royals

3. Chicago White Sox

4. Cleveland Indians

5. Minnesota Twins

So, by how many games does Detroit win this division? Well, last year they won by 15, and I don’t really see them winning it by more this time.

But they added Prince Fielder! I mean, that’ll help, especially in the playoffs, but it’s really hard to win a division by more than 15 games. And this team isn’t that good.

Weren’t you the one who wrote about how overrated Justin Verlander is, and how Detroit was actually pretty good last year? That’s a very reductive summary of my argument: I would never call Verlander overrated, but there hasn’t been a repeat Cy Young winner in over a decade.

And while the non-Verlander parts of the Tigers were better than people gave them credit for last year, they weren’t historically good, and only historically good teams win their division by more than 15 games.*

*I don’t have data to back this up.

Well, will they win the division by more games than Miguel Cabrera actually plays at third base? That’s a much more intriguing question. The Tigers seem pretty committed to this absurd idea, so I suspect they’ll stick with it several weeks after it’s become clear to everyone that it can’t work.

It’s not just that Cabrera hasn’t regularly played third in five years, or even that since then he’s put on like 50 lbs.—it’s that even when he actually played third base, he was a pretty lousy fielder. I don’t think the years off or the added weight have made him better. If you add to that the fact that Fielder is also a bad defensive first baseman, and that the Tigers don’t really have a natural second baseman, this just doesn’t seem sustainable. Detroit does have a lot of strikeout pitchers, but they can’t strike out everyone. And guys like Doug Fister and Rick Porcello will really suffer from such a bad infield.

If Cabrera moves back to first and Fielder DHs, then his impact is diminished: Instead of replacing the weak hitters they had at third last year—Brandon Inge, Don Kelly—Fielder replaces Victor Martinez. He’s still an upgrade, but not by as much.

I see you have the Royals finishing in second. Is that your attempt at a bold prediction in such a predictable division? Sort of. It’s also a commentary on the rest of the Central. None of these teams inspire confidence: Minnesota is coming off an abysmal year, and there’s little reason to expect them to be much better. The optimism that surrounded Cleveland last year has dissipated somewhat: The Ubaldo Jiminez trade didn’t work out, Matt LaPorta’s been sent back to the minors, and Shin-Soo Choo is coming off a bad season. The White Sox shed Ozzie Guillen, who was clearly becoming a distraction, but they’re still stuck with all the bad contracts they’ve taken on over the last few years: Adam Dunn, Alexis Rios, Jake Peavy. I thought all those investments were shrewd risks taken individually, but now that none have panned out, the roster is really saddled down. And they lost Mark Buerhle, their most reliable starter.

So, weirdly, the Royals are the only non-Tiger team that’s going into 2012 with more to be excited about than last year. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas will get better; Jeff Franceour and Alex Gordon, two players who’ve always shown flashes of great talent, each finally put together solid seasons last year; even the rotation looks likely to receive a slight boost from Jonathan Sanchez. Of course, Joakim Soria’s injury is a blow this season, but being out for the year may actually be good—if Aaron Crow is successful as the closer, the Royals might be willing to try Soria in the rotation when he comes back. Kansas City was probably at least a year away from contention anyway.

This year, though, I expect them to emerge from the middling pack that is the bottom of this division, and take second place with something like 83 wins.

AL East

1. New York Yankees

2. Tampa Bay Rays*

3. Boston Red Sox

4. Toronto Blue Jays

5. Baltimore Orioles

Oh man, as a Yankee fan, how much fun was this off-season? I really don’t want to gloat. After all, it’s not like the Yankees are coming off a championship, or even a perfect off-season…

Yeah, but it was downright blissful compared to the situation in Boston, right? I mean, wasn’t it kind of fun to watch that train wreck? I really don’t want to tempt fate…

But the Red Sox are coming off a season when they spent almost $300 million on free agents, only to win one more game than the year before. And in the off-season they fired the manager who ended the “Curse” and then the organization attacked his character after he left! And they traded Theo Epstein to Chicago! And they hired the most cartoon-ish, over-the-top, megalomaniacal manager in baseball after desperately searching for someone else! They traded Marco Scutaro, even though they didn’t really have a major league-ready alternative at shortstop, just to save $6 million! The most annoying closer in the world signed somewhere else, and his replacement is already injured! I really don’t want to bring all this up. It’s too risky.

But, yes, of course it was fun to watch that. There was so much hype around Boston in 2011—even I bought into it to a degree—that it was nice to see the season devolve into such a disaster.

With that said, I don’t expect the Red Sox to just lay down and die in 2012. It’s not like Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, and Jacoby Ellsbury aren’t all still great hitters. And it’s not like Jon Lester and Josh Beckett aren’t still great starters. The team had a lot of bad luck last year, but it’s not likely to continue. The Carl Crawford contract will probably still look stupid at the end of this year, but he can’t possibly be as bad as he was last year. Clay Buchholz will be back for a full season, and though Daniel Bard and Felix Doubront are question marks in the rotation, they can’t possibly be as bad as John Lackey was last year.

But, I mean, Bobby Valentine? Valentine was a very confusing hire—I don’t think managers make much of a difference, but Valentine is such a media personality that he magnifies every story. If Boston gets off to a good start, it will look like Valentine steadied a sinking ship; but if they struggle like they did last year, or have a slightly disappointing stretch in June, then it will look like a disastrous hire. Given all the bad headlines the organization just had, you’d think they’d want to avoid a repeat of that.

With all that said, managers don’t make that much difference—they mostly affect the perception of a team.

Before you go on to the 2012 Yankees, would you like to take a second to apologize to the ’11 team, for whom you predicted a third place finish? Thanks for bringing that up. But yes, I apologize for doubting the Yankees and panicking like a common Red Sox fan. I should have known that Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia would come through—how could I have ever doubted them?

This year, though, I’m as optimistic as I was skeptical last year.

Doesn’t that worry you, given how your predictions panned out last season? Well when you put it like that…

But I just see a lot to be confident about as a Yankee fan: This team won the division relatively comfortably last year, returns almost all of its offense, upgraded the rotation, and has a healthier bullpen. What’s not to like?

Well, Michael Pineda’s already on the DL. That doesn’t bode well for someone the team gave up Jesus Montero for… That trade was for the future. It sucks that Pineda’s on the DL now, but he’s 23 years old: He’ll have his moments. As good as Montero is, it’s not clear that he can catch in the big leagues, and so it’s not clear where the Yankees would put him. The Yankees have a lot of catching prospects in their system, and they’re not lacking for offense either. On the other hand, you can never have too much young pitching, and Pineda looked great in the first half of last season.

What will be better for New York’s rotation this year: Gaining Pineda or losing Burnett? This year, probably losing Burnett. Pineda’s still young and may not pitch much this year, given the injury, but replacing Burnett with Hiroki Kuroda/Freddy Garcia/Andy Pettitte/anyone whose ERA over the last two seasons is below 5.00, will give the rotation the depth it sorely lacked last year.

I’m still not sure this team has a solid #2-starter: Phil Hughes had a good spring, but he hasn’t really been above average since the first two months of 2010. Ivan Nova is still young, and Kuroda is going to suffer from moving from the Dodgers: He’ll be facing better lineups in a tougher park. No matter what, though, the rotation is better than it was at the start of last season, and the lineup is even better.

Isn’t the lineup basically identical? We got Raul Ibanez! Aside from that, though, the offense is mostly the same, which means it should be better.

That doesn’t make any sense. Let me finish!

You see, this year’s team should be better because, aside from Curtis Granderson, everyone in the Yankee lineup last year had a disappointing season. It’s similar to the point made about Texas, but even more extreme: That was a case of nobody having an unsustainably good year, but in New York everyone actually had a bad year. Alex Rodriguez missed 63 games and broke his streak of seasons with 30 home runs and 100 RBI. Mark Teixeira had the lowest batting average of his career. Nick Swisher and Derek Jeter got off to such slow starts that their stats never really recovered. Even players like Brett Gardner and Robinson Cano, who still had good seasons (Cano was an MVP candidate), suffered dramatic steps back from 2010.

Of course, not everyone will bounce back completely. For some of these players—most troublingly in Teixeira’s case—it seems like part of an overall downward trend, and Rodriguez is going to continue to have sporadic injury problems at this point in his career. But I expect almost everyone in the lineup to be better than they were last year. Given, that the lineup was pretty good anyway last season, that’s very encouraging…

Will Tampa Bay at least scare the Yankees? Based on the evidence from opening weekend, I’m starting to wonder if the Yankees will even scare Tampa Bay.

I thought you weren’t letting the first weekend change your picks! I’m not, and I was high on the Rays before that. I picked them to win the Wild Card last season, and I’m picking them again this year for much the same reason: pitching depth. James Shields, David Price, and Jeremy Hellickson are possibly the best top three in the AL,* and now they add Matt Moore—who some are saying is ahead of where Price was three years ago—to that rotation. A lot of the buzz around Moore is probably just hype, but if Moore can be close to what Price has been, then the Rays have easily the best rotation in the AL.

*It’s either them or Los Angeles’ top three, but I’d take Tampa Bay’s.

Last year’s lineup was somewhat suspect, but they’ve made typically shrewd upgrades. Jeff Keppinger was a cheap addition to the infield who allows them to platoon Reid Brignac, and Carlos Pena adds power to a lineup that was sorely lacking it last year. Plus, they have a healthy Evan Longoria and Desmond Jennings will get a full season in. They still won’t be an offensive juggernaut, but they won’t have as much trouble scoring as they did last year. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them trade B.J. Upton midseason. Upton’s heading for arbitration in the off-season, and the Rays like to trade players before their value declines, not after (see: Young, Delmon; Kazmir, Scott).

How much of your confidence in Tampa Bay is based on its almost magical prescience regarding infield shifts? It’s true that the Yankees seemed to lose like 10 hits to the Rays’ various shifts over the weekend—who shifts against righties? Who?—but it’s actually indicative of the things Tampa Bay has become known for. The Rays always seem to be on the cutting edge of research, whether it’s regarding pitcher injuries, or bullpen use, or infield shifts. Their small payroll forces them to be creative about where to look for competitive advantages, and they always seem right about these things.

If they can compete, then what’s Baltimore’s excuse? Or Toronto’s? Well, in fairness to Toronto, they seem to be putting something together. I considered picking them ahead of Boston this year, but that felt extreme. Still, the Blue Jays lineup is very impressive. Jose Bautista proved a lot of doubters—myself included—wrong last year by improving on his ’10 season. Now he also has a lot of talent around him. Brett Lawrie looked great down the stretch last season, and Eric Thames showed a lot of potential. J.P. Arencibia and Adam Lind give the lineup power around Bautista, even if they can’t get on base any other way (24% of Arencibia’s hits in ’11 were home runs).

Toronto’s problem is in the rotation. Whereas Tampa Bay turned itself around with young pitching, the only pitcher the Blue Jays can rely on thus far is Ricky Romero. Beyond him, the rotation is suspect—though Henderson Alvarez and Joel Carreno have a lot of promise, they have combined for fewer than 80 big league innings. Overall, it seems like Toronto is a year away from really contending.

And Baltimore? Oh, they’re fucked forever.

PLAYOFFS

Wild Card Round

RAYS over Angels—This is so stupid. How am I supposed to pick who’s going to win one game six months from now? Whatever. I like the Rays better.

Division Series

YANKEES over Texas—CC Sabathia wins two games in a series that is otherwise a slugfest.

TIGERS over Rays—Once again, Justin Verlander pitches two very substandard games, but gets an exaggerated amount of credit due to the powerful “one starting pitcher is all you need in the Division Series” myth.

ALCS 

YANKEES over Tigers—Vengeance series! New York avenges last year’s Division Series loss. Though the Yankees win in five, Joe Girardi issues a combined 11 intentional walks to Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.

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