It's that time of year. Time to predict where each team in baseball will finish this year based on their offseason moves. We start with a look at the American League today, and Mr. Mosvick will be doing his National League predictions tomorrow. Enjoy, and feel free to comment if you have any disagreements.
1. OAKLAND ATHLETICS 96-66
Much like with the Atlanta Braves, I have learned over the past several years never to underestimate the Oakland Athletics. Prior to last season, I thought they looked thin, especially on offense, and predicted them to come in last place in an improving division. Much to my surprise, the A's finished the 2005 season 88-74 and were in strong playoff contention right up until the end.
The Athletics have produced the AL's Rookie of the Year winner the past two seasons (shortstop Bobby Crosby in 2004 and closer Huston Street in 2005) and have a young lineup poised to improve this season. Crosby will look to stay healthy all season and could put up big numbers. First-baseman Dan Johnson and outfielder Nick Swisher should continue to develop in their sophomore campaigns. Look for a rebound year from Eric Chavez, who will provide pop in the middle of the Oakland lineup along with new arrival Milton Bradley. The acquisition of slugger Frank Thomas could pay dividends in the unlikely event that he stays healthy for the majority of the year.
The A's are loaded with arms. Barry Zito and Rich Harden form one of the league's most formidable 1-2 punches, and youngsters Dan Haren and Joe Blanton continue to develop. I'm not big on Esteban Loaiza, but he should fit in decently with this club as a veteran middle-of-the-rotation guy. If a starter gets injured, they have good depth, led by Kirk Saarloos. After saving 23 games and posting a 1.72 ERA last year, the 22-year-old Street should be one of the league's top closers.
2. TEXAS RANGERS 89-73
Last year, the Rangers stumbled to a sub-.500 record despite leading the Major Leagues in home runs (260) and team slugging percentage (.468). Why? Their 4.92 team ERA ranked worse than any other team in the AL other than bottom-feeders Tampa Bay and Kansas City. During the offseason, they made several moves to shore up their rotation and it should lead to much more success in the AL West this season.
The Rangers' marquis offseason acquisition was 2005 American League ERA Champ Kevin Millwood. While his numbers will probably be a little worse in the Rangers' hitter-friendly ballpark, he should be an adequate ace. Texas also added Adam Eaton in a trade with the Padres (bit of a head-scratcher, as they gave up promising young pitcher Chris Young in the deal, who looked pretty good last year), and also acquired Vicente Padilla from the Phillies. The bullpen looks a little questionable in front of hard-throwing closer Francisco Cordero, but it should suffice.
The Rangers' three starting pitcher acquisitions will probably all have decent years, and that should be enough to allow a monstrous lineup that includes Mark Teixeria, Michael Young, and Hank Blalock to power them to second place in the division.
3. LOS ANGELES ANGELS 81-81
The defending division champs did not have a particularly impressive offseason. They picked up a couple of mediocre left-handed relievers in J.C. Romero and Hector Carrasco (both former Twins), but they lost a reliable starter in Paul Byrd and a solid catcher in Bengie Molina. They also parted ways with Steve Finley (which was probably for the best). They also signed Jeff Weaver to a one year, $8 million deal, one of the worst signings of the offseason in my opinion.
The problem is that a few of their projected regulars are getting old and probably set to see regressing numbers, namely Garret Anderson and Darin Erstad. I think 2005 Cy Young winner Bartolo Colon is going to have a down year, and the rest of their rotation will be about average. I predict they'll start to fall out of the race mid-way through the season and then call up star prospect middle-infielders Brandon Wood and Howie Kendrick to get some Major League experience.
4. SEATTLE MARINERS 74-88
The Mariners finished last in the AL West last season and didn't do a whole lot to improve themselves during the offseason. They brought in Japanese catcher Kenji Johjima, who will probably be hit-or-miss, and also signed southpaw Jarrod Washburn to add to their rotation, who is a decent back-of-the-rotation starter but not worth what they payed him.
I think Adrian Beltre will have a rebound year after a horribly disappointing 2005 campaign, and Richie Sexson should have another good year, but this offense is fairly unimpressive outside of those two and Ichiro. Young phenom Felix Hernandez will be a joy to watch pitch this year, but he will probably one of the few bright spots for M's fans in '06.
1. CLEVELAND INDIANS 98-64
The Indians had a rough first half last year, but were the best team in baseball in the second half of the season. I believe that will carry into the 2006 season, where they will be a tough team to beat. They lost some pitching in the offseason, but considering that they had the lowest team ERA in the AL last season, they probably could afford to.
Catcher Victor Martinez had a putrid first half last season before tearing it up after the All-Star break. If he can get it going early this year, he will team up with Travis Hafner and Jhonny Peralta to bring some serious power to the table. The Tribe lost leadoff man Coco Crisp in an offseason trade with the Red Sox, but young center fielder Grady Sizemore should be able to step into that role nicely. They signed starting pitchers Jason Johnson and Paul Byrd to offset the losses of Kevin Millwood and Scott Elarton. I'm not at all big on Johnson, but I think Byrd is a nice fit with Cleveland. Cliff Lee proved himself as a high-quality pitcher last season, and C.C. Sabathia and Jake Westbrook are both capable of solid seasons.
2. MINNESOTA TWINS 92-70
Last year, the Twins were pretty much a unanimous choice to win the Central Division for a fourth consecutive year. Unfortunately, their offense fell well short of expectations and they wound up finishing just above .500. This year, they have made some nice offensive additions, namely Luis Castillo and Rondell White. It is also reasonable to think young players like Justin Morneau and Jason Bartlett, who struggled in their first full seasons in the big leagues, will improve dramatically with a year of experience under their belt.
The pitching staff should once again be excellent, perhaps even better than last year. The rotation returns 2005 Cy Young snub Johan Santana as well as Brad Radke, Carlos Silva, and Kyle Lohse. Francisco Liriano should join the rotation at some point in the season, and when he does, he could do some pretty special things.
I believe the Twins will improve enough offensively to win several of the close games they lost last year.
3. CHICAGO WHITE SOX 85-77
Perhaps it's out of bias against the franchise, but I just don't see the White Sox repeating their magical campaign of last year. Despite winning the World Series in 2005, General Manager Kenny Williams was very aggressive in the offseason, trading to get for slugger Jim Thome from the Phillies and pitcher Javier Vazquez and re-signing first baseman Paul Konerko, who hit 40 home runs last year.
Judging by the moves they made in the offseason, it would stand to reason that the Sox could only improve heading into 2006. However, I can't see their starting pitchers doing as well as they did last season. Jose Contreras, who posted a 5.50 ERA in 2004, won 15 games with a 3.71 ERA. Jon Garland, who, from 2002-2004, won 12 games a year and consistently posted an ERA around 4.60, went 18-10 with a 3.50 ERA. Furthermore, I don't think Vazquez, an extreme fly ball pitcher, will have much success in that stadium.
The Sox have many questions as well. Thome has some serious injury questions, as he was limited to just 59 games and a .352 slugging percentage last year with Philadelphia. Closer Bobby Jenks has had some character problems in the past, and while he was able to pull it together and pitch very effectively out of the Chicago bullpen last year, I question how he'll handle a full season in the closer role.
The White Sox are a team who I could easily see repeating as division champs, but I could also see them having some serious problems and struggling to stay above .500. Since a lot of things would have to go right for them to have success again this season, I'm going to go with the latter.
4. DETROIT TIGERS 80-82
I really wanted to rank the Tigers higher. I think that if Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, and Carlos Guillen are healthy and productive for most of the season, they have a chance to be a great sleeper team and seriously contend for the division title. They added veteran Kenny Rogers to their rotation in the offseason, and I think his presence will be nice with young hurlers like Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander/Joel Zumaya.
The Tigers have some very nice young hitters, like first baseman Chris Shelton and speedy center fielder Curtis Granderson. If the aforementioned veterans could stay healthy and hit like they have in their better years, the offense would be one of the most dangerous in the league. Unfortunately, it's tough for me to see that happening. Pudge seems to be wearing down and his patience at the plate has disappeared, as he posted a terrible .290 on-base percentage. Ordonez has played in just 134 games over the past two years combined. Guillen was great when he played last year but missed almost half the season due to a knee injury.
Detroit has a roster loaded with talent and could do some special things this year, but I have a feeling it is going to be another tough year in Mo-Town.
5. KANSAS CITY ROYALS 67-95
Last year, the Royals posted the worst record in the Major Leagues, going 56-106 while posting a league-worst 5.49 team ERA. Seems like things couldn't get much worse. Well, they won't; but they won't get a whole lot better either. The Royals went out and signed some veterans with winning track records during the offseason. The hope is that guys like Doug Mientkiewicz, Reggie Sanders, and Mark Grudzielanek, while not being the most earth-shatteringly talented players around, will bring a new attitude to a young team that understandably doesn't have a whole lot of confidence. I think this will help, to some degree, but not nearly enough to dig them out of last place.
The additions of Scott Elarton and Mark Redman give them a more respectable rotation, but they need the MIA Zack Greinke to return. The bullpen is highly questionable. Young players like third baseman Mark Teahen and 2003 Rookie of the Year shortstop Angel Berroa have not produced offensively like the team had hoped.
It will be another year of losing and growing pains for the Royals, but they should be better than they were last year, for what it's worth.
1. NEW YORK YANKEES 100-62
The Yankees don't have much pitching, but that shouldn't prevent them from winning at least 100 games with this lineup. With the newly acquired Johnny Damon hitting leadoff, the Bronx Bombers will be absolutely monstrous pretty much 1-9 in the lineup. Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui, Jason Giambi, Jorge Posada... who do you pitch around? Opposing pitchers are going to be having nightmares about this lineup, which should help some of the headaches that their own pitching staff will be causing.
One would hope that Randy Johnson will bounce back this year, but it's hard to imagine career mediocrity Shawn Chacon repeating the success he had with the Yankees last year. I'm fairly convinced that Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright are simply overpaid free agency busts. Mike Mussina is getting old.
Still, the Yanks have a pretty solid bullpen. The legendary Mariano Rivera is coming off perhaps his best season, and he will have Kyle Farnsworth, Octavio Dotel, Tanyon Sturtze, and a variety of other solid pitchers setting him up.
2. TORONTO BLUE JAYS 88-74
The Blue Jays were very aggressive in the offseason and should pay off as they finally pass the Red Sox in the standings. Even though they payed far too much to get them, AJ Burnett and B.J. Ryan are great acquisitions. Ryan gives them a lights out closer, and if Burnett stays healthy (big if) he and Roy Halladay form a dominant 1-2 punch at the top of a very solid rotation. With all due respect to Johan Santana, Halladay is the best pitcher in the American League when he is healthy.
The Jays also stocked up on solid hitters in the offseason, trading for first baseman Lance Overbay and third baseman Troy Glaus. This should give them good power, and center fielder Vernon Wells could use a big year to prove that his 2003 season (.317/.359/.550) was not a fluke.
Toronto is not yet ready to overcome the Yankees, but getting out of third place will be a good start for them.
3. BOSTON RED SOX 83-79
I've been hearing a lot about how deep the Red Sox are with pitching, but I just don't see it. When I look at their pitching staff, I see a lot of questions and I'm not too optimistic about the answers.
I have trouble believing Curt Schilling has anything left in the tank after last year. He was just horrific. Josh Beckett, who the Sox acquired from the Marlins in the offseason, is a great pitcher when healthy but he doesn't have a very great track record with health. Much like former teammate A.J. Burnett, he throws really hard and it gives him frequent arm problems. David Wells has been nasty towards the Sox organization this spring and will probably be traded. Matt Clement was 10-2 with a 3.85 ERA before the All-Star break last year and 3-4 with a 5.72 ERA afterward. Youngster Jon Papelbon looks like he might be ready for the big leagues, but who knows how he will fare.
Even the mighty Red Sox offense looks a bit weak this year, particularly the infield. Mike Lowell is coming off an absolutely awful 2005 campaign and has reportedly looked bad in Spring Training. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez and first baseman J.T. Snow are good fielders who don't hit much. Kevin Youkilis has some hype surrounding him because he can draw walks, but he doesn't hit for great average or power. Mark Loretta has been a very good hitter over the course of the year, but he's 34 and showed some decline last year, particularly with his slugging percentage.
Of course, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez are still around. Unfortunately for Red Sox fans, there isn't nearly as much talent surrounding them as they have in the past several years. What is always hyped as a battle between Boston and New York for first place might turn into a battle between Boston and Baltimore for third place.
4. BALTIMORE ORIOLES 77-85
Miguel Tejada was furious this offseason with what he viewed as complacency by the Orioles organization. It's hard to blame him. While the Blue Jays went out and stocked up on prominent players in an effort to unseat the big-market Yankees and Red Sox, Baltimore signed catcher Ramon Hernandez and mediocre center field Corey Patterson. The also signed Kevin Millar, who doesn't have a history of hitting too well outside of Fenway Park.
The Orioles do have a sneaky good rotation featuring promising youngsters Erik Bedard and Daniel Cabrera. The team lured in legendary pitching coach Leo Mazzone with the hope of helping these players reach their potential sooner rather than later.
Even if both of those pitchers are able to come out and have great seasons, it still probably won't be enough for a team that has a lousy bullpen, not much offense, and plays in a very tough division. Chances are the Orioles will be sellers around the trade deadline.
5. TAMPA BAY DEVIL RAYS 68-94
The Devil Rays are on their way to building a pretty darn good offense, filled with athletic and talented young players like Jorge Cantu, Julio Lugo, Carl Crawford, and Rocco Baldelli. Unfortunately, their pitching could be disastrous this year. The casual baseball fan could not be blamed for not recognizing a single name on this team's pitching staff. They traded away their most established reliever, Danys Baez, in the offseason, and now are left with a collection of inexperienced young players and sub-par veterans. With more talented outfielders quickly rising through the system, like the speedy Joey Gathright and top prospect Delmon Young, the Rays might have to look at trading Crawford or Baldelli for legitimate pitching help. As it stands, Scott Kazmir is the only starter on this team who seems remotely capable of a good season.