We usually don't post our annual preseason preview for each league on this blog until late March, but this year we decided to do them a little early, in large part because I am probably going to be a bit busier in mid-to-late March. Today I'll predict the placement of each team in the three American League divisions, complete with my reasoning, and tomorrow we'll have a National League preview brought to you by none other than the reclusive Nick Mosvick (a noted slacker).
1. Los Angeles Angels
The Angels won this division last year with relative ease, and should do so again this year. They added Torii Hunter via free agency and traded for Jon Garland to augment their rotation, with John Lackey, Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders, Kelvim Escobar and Jered Weaver all returning. Vladimir Guerrero and Garrett Anderson are getting older, but have remained productive. Meanwhile, talented young hitters like Reggie Willits, Howie Kendrick and Brandon Wood will be given an opportunity to establish themselves. The bullpen, led by closer Francisco Rodriguez and set-up man Scot Shields, should be effective.
2. Seattle Mariners
Many people felt that the Mariners got lucky last year, as their 88-64 record was a considerable step up from their Pythagorean record of 79-83. I'm not so sure. This team hit well, but lost a number of blowout games because of an inconsistent and flawed pitching staff. For this reason, the offseason additions of Erik Bedard and Carlos Silva should be huge. In Bedard and Felix Hernandez, the Mariners have a pair of starters who could both compete for the Cy Young. The bullpen -- highlighted by J.J. Putz, Ryan Rowland-Smith and youngster Brandon Morrow -- should be a strength.
I'm just not sure that Seattle will get enough offense to keep up with the Angels. Gone is the team's top young hitter, Adam Jones, along with Jose Guillen. First baseman Richie Sexson and second baseman Jose Lopez need to rebound from hugely disappointing 2007 campaigns. Ichiro has shown no signs of slowing down, but at age 34, he could any time now.
3. Oakland Athletics
The A's are clearly in a re-tooling phase, having traded ace Dan Haren and slugger Nick Swisher during the offseason. Starter Joe Blanton and closer Huston Street could be the next to leave. I can't imagine that the A's will stick with the Mariners and Angels for too long, but they do have young talent and could surprise. Carlos Gonzalez, the prize return in the Haren trade, should make in impact in the outfield. The pitching staff should be solid even without Haren, and a few pitchers acruiqed in that trade may also contribute.
4. Texas Rangers
The Rangers lost 87 games and finished last in the West in 2007, and there's little reason to believe they'll improve much this year. Josh Hamilton joins the outfield, but outside of him the team made no significant additions offensively. Meanwhile, the pitching staff remains very much a work in progress, with inexperienced hurlers such as Kason Gabbard, Robinson Tejeda and Brandon McCarthy still learning their way through the big leagues.
1. Cleveland Indians
I've heard a number of people claim that the Indians' success in 2007 was something of a fluke. I'm not buying it. This team should continue to be strong here in '08. Fausto Carmona is for real, with his nasty hard sinking stuff, and C.C. Sabathia will be motivated to succeed in his final year before free agency. Meanwhile, Jake Westbrook and Paul Byrd are coming off solid campaigns in '07, and prospect Adam Miller could broach the rotation at some point during the season. The bullpen should again be a strength, with Rafael Betancourt and Rafael Perez returning and Masahide Kobayashi coming over from Japan.
Offensively, the Indians could improve. Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner, arguably the team's top two hitter, both played below their potential last season and could both be MVP candidates this year.
2. Detroit Tigers
After some key offseason acquisitions, the Tigers might be the best offensive team in the league. The addition of Miguel Cabrera at third base will immensely improve that position, and Edgar Renteria should provide a solid presence at shortstop with Carlos Guillen shifting over to first. Add in Placido Polanco at second, and this is a stellar infield. The outfield allignment is nothing to scoff at either, with Curtis Granderson (.913 OPS last year) manning center field alongside Magglio Ordonez (MVP runner-up) in right. Gary Sheffield will contribute as well.
There are definitely some concerns on this pitching staff beyond Justin Verlander though. It seems the enigmatic Jeremy Bonderman may never pitch up to his ability. Kenny Rogers is 43. Dontrelle Willis struggled last year and is moving into a tougher league. The bullpen features even more questions, with Joel Zumaya likely out for at least half the season. Closer Todd Jones is far from dominant despite his high save totals.
The biggest problem for this team might be the fact that they traded a lot of good prospects during the offseason, and lack much depth. A few injuries to this veteran team could cripple their chances of taking the division. If the pitching staff holds up, though, they will be a force to be reckoned with.
3. Minnesota Twins
It was a busy offseason for the Twins. The losses of Johan Santana and Silva leave them with a rather young and inexperienced rotation, one which could struggle if Francisco Liriano isn't able to come back strong while Scott Baker and Boof Bonser step up. The offense is likely to improve but won't likely be better than average. Combine that with what will probably be an average pitching staff, and you've got a fairly mediocre team overall. The Twins can compete if a number of things go right, but realistically this is probably about a .500 team.
4. Chicago White Sox
After adding Swisher, Orlando Cabrera and Cuban Alexei Ramirez, the Sox are a good bet to improve an offense that ranked last in the American League last season. Still, they've got a long ways to go before their offense can actually be considered "good," and none of the players acquired are likely to turn things around dramatically. The pitching staff lacks a true ace, and the bullpen -- which ranked 12th in the AL with a 5.47 ERA last year -- is not likely to improve significantly. The Sox will probably be better than last year, but they're not good enough to compete in this division.
5. Kansas City Royals
This team might be a candidate to surprise, but I don't think they have quite enough talent to escape the cellar in what should be a tough division. Much will depend on young players like Brian Bannister, Alex Gordon and Billy Butler, all of whom are candidates for breakout years.
1. Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox were an unstoppable force last year, and there's little reason to think that this season will be any different. Most of the championship roster returns, and there's reason to believe the pitching staff -- which ranked first in the AL in ERA last season -- will be even better. Josh Beckett was stellar last year and really turned it on in the postseason while Daisuke Matsuzaka has had a full season to adjust to American baseball. Young hurlers Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester gained valuable experience last year and could both be key members of the rotation. The bullpen is young and talented. The offense returns every starter after scoring 867 runs last year.
2. New York Yankees
I believe Hank Steinbrenner will look back and regret not making a more aggressive push for Santana. The Yankees needed him if they were going to compete with the juggernaut Red Sox this year. As it stands, they will be relying heavily on their trio of talented young starters -- Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy -- and hoping that crafty vets Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte can make it through the season in good health. Really, Chien-Ming Wang is the only known commodity in this rotation. The bullpen does not project strongly.
The Yankees led the AL in scoring last year, and no one doubts that this offense will put runs on the board. The question is whether the pitching staff can hold up under the pressure. There are some good hitters in this division.
3. Tampa Bay Rays
Perhaps I'm going out on a limb with this pick, but boy is this a talented young roster. The Rays feature a great trio of young pitchers at the head of their rotation in Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza. Meanwhile, the offense features several studs, from Carl Crawford to B.J. Upton to Carlos Pena (who quietly had an absolutely stellar season last year) to Rookie of the Year candidate Evan Longoria. The bullpen could present some problems, but I think this is a team that could surprise some people.
4. Toronto Blue Jays
Every year, it seems that the Jays have a highly talented roster and could contend with the Twin Titans for a playoff spot, but each year they come up short. The pitching staff should be strong as long as Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett stay healthy, but it's difficult to see this offense -- which ranked tenth in the AL in runs scored last year -- improving much with its only significant offseason acquisitions coming in the form of oft-injured third baseman Scott Rolen and scrappy (yet crappy) shortstop David Eckstein.
5. Baltimore Orioles
With top pitcher Bedard and slugging shortstop Miguel Tejada out of the picture, the Orioles will probably spend the 2008 season dwelling at the bottom of the AL East while developing some raw but talented young pitchers like Adam Loewen, Radhames Liz and Daniel Cabrera.