Oops. Didn’t get my AL preview posted like I promised. Let’s see if I can do this within the hour, when today’s games are due to start.
1. Yankees. The first two games of the season have no influence on this choice. Really. As I said with the ALCS last year, I think Boston can do it, but I just don’t know that I’ll believe it until they do it. Yes, I realize that goes against part of what predicting things is all about, but I don’t care. This is my column. I do, however, think we’re going to see a sharp decline in the skills of at least one of these three players: Bernie Williams, Gary Sheffield or Mariano Rivera. I don’t know why, but something tells me that age and/or injuries will catch up with one of them this year, and we’re going to see remarkably low numbers from one of them. I also think either Carl Pavano or Jaret Wright will turn out to be a questionable signing, if not downright horrible, though the latter is really only in the case of Wright. And it’s Wright whom I think will be the bust much more than Pavano. Though I still have my doubts about him. And if Randy Johnson has any health issues — his back, his knee — and has to go on the DL, I expect the Yankees to stumble a little. If he’s out for more than 15 days, it could be worse. But those are a lot of “ifs.” What I do expect, on the positive side, is further improvement from Hideki Matsui. Like 35-40 homers, and maybe a starting outfield in Detroit of Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui in center and left, with Vladimir Guerrero in right. I also think Tino Martinez and Jason Giambi will combine for 40-50 homers and Tony Womack will pretty much give the Yankees what Miguel Cairo (mostly) and Enrique Wilson gave them at second last year.
2. Red Sox. Wild card. I bet this is how it will go: Boston will lose today’s game at Yankee Stadium, Curt Schilling will get hit a little bit next week but settle down for the win at Fenway, and the Sox will finish two or three games behind the Yanks at the end of the season. But I would love to see this division come down to the final series in Boston. Major League Baseball, which for the first time this off-season relied solely on a computer to generate the schedule instead of some couple on Cape Cod or somewhere, got one thing right in having the Yankees and Red Sox finish the season against one another. Starting it that way is second. But on Sunday night’s YES broadcast of the opener (since ESPN was blacked out in NY/NJ and probably CT and we had to suffer through Michael Kay instead of suffering through Joe Morgan), Jim Kaat — or maybe it was Paul O’Neill, but probably Kaat — suggested that because this rivalry has become such an event for baseball that they should space the six series out over the course of the season, one each month. I like the idea, with one exception: I think they should place twice in September. You could start the season off with them facing each other, match them up on Memorial Day weekend, do it again in mid-June (Father’s Day weekend?), pit them against one another for the Fourth of July, skip August, and then reunited them over Labor Day weekend and to close the season. OK, they don’t have to all line up with holidays, but why not? The Labor Day series could be pushed back a week or two if you want them to go home-and-home in six of the last nine or 12 games of the season.
Anyway, enough of that. Boston will finish a close second, if for no other reason than they’ve probably got the best lineup in baseball. If Schilling makes it back next week and gets through the season without any other issues, I think the pitching will come around. David Wells will bounce back in his next start against the Yanks and Matt Clement will turn things around with the help of Schilling and Fenway Park. He was 9-13 with the Cubs last year; I could see him going 13-9 this time. And look for Bronson Arroyo to emerge. Barring injury, I don’t know that the Sox will have to do much at the trading deadline. They’ll be looking for pitching — either the best available starter because someone (Wakefield? Clement? Wells?) will indeed struggle, despite what I just said because those things happen, or an arm or two to shore up the bullpen. But I do see a chance that Bill Mueller or Mark Bellhorn won’t be the starters at third or second, respectively, come August, and we may see a trade for an Aubrey Huff or a Bret Boone.
3. Orioles. Is this the easiest division to predict? Well, either this or the AL West. If nothing else, you know it’s NY-BOS 1-2, one way or another, with Baltimore third and probably Toronto fourth. But who knows? There is certainly a lot of firepower in the lineups of the teams along I-95 from Baltimore to Boston. Rodriguez-Sheffield-Matsui? Renteria-Ramirez-Ortiz? Tejada-Palmeiro-Sosa? Wow. The O’s will crush the ball — Sammy should top 40, maybe 45, barring any sneezing fits — but they’ll get crushed too. Unless Rodrigo Lopez and Daniel Cabrera take two big steps forward, each, to something like 13-15 wins, this team will lose a lot of games when it scores six or seven runs.
4. Blue Jays. Well, Tom Verducci has some numbers that say Toronto will improve upon its 67-94 record from last year, though I doubt it will be by much. Maybe 72 wins? Seventy-four? Tampa Bay won 71 last year and could do so again. I think it will be a close race for fourth in this division. For its part, Toronto needs to get Roy Halladay some runs, or he’s only winning about 14 or 15; with adequate support, 18-20. But what about the rest of the staff? The rotation? Yikes.
5. Devil Rays. I think the young energy of the stars who continue to emerge down on the bay can carry this team far… but I don’t think Lou Pinella give in and make the changes that would allow the youngsters to develop. Things like finding a place for B.J. Upton in the infield (Alex Gonzalez over him, Lou? Really?) and sticking Joey Gathright in the outfield and living with it (Chris Singleton and Eduardo Perez the first two games? Are you sure?). But there’s a continuing theme among the bottom three teams in this division: They’ll hit, but they’ll get hit. The Rays have a good bullpen, but their starters could be trouble. Something in me likes Dewon Brazelton, but maybe it’s just his name. He’s a two-pitch pitcher who’s never won outside of the juice dome. As for Scott Kazmir, I think he’s going to be brilliant at times — and maybe only against weaker teams — and decent, at best, against others. I think Tampa is rushing him. At 21, he hasn’t pitched more than 134 innings in any one season (134 last year is the high) and you can’t just throw a young guy like that out there and expect 200. He may be meeting Dr. James Andrews somewhere down the line.
1. Twins. This is like a smaller, low-budget version of the AL or NL East. Put the Twins at No. 1 in ink, and then try to figure out the rest. With Johan Santana and Brad Radke 1-2 in the rotation, no one in the division can match that. Santana’s the true No. 1, after all, and what do the Indians and White Sox have? Jake Westbrook and Mark Buehrle? They match up well against Radke, but no one equals Santana. The bullpen is the best in the division, too, and they’ve got a nice mix in the lineup of veterans (Shannon Stewart, Torii Hunter) and young studs with big upsides (Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer). I’m hoping for a breakout from Morneau on more than one fantasy team, and he could come close to putting up what David Ortiz — whom the Twins once released — has done for the Red Sox.
2. Indians. I may be jumping on a bandwagon here, but I like what’s developing in Cleveland. It’s almost all young — the anti-Giants — with hitting at the core and pitchers who can get the job done. We’ll have to see what they get from Kevin Millwood, because another rough year (.500 record, 4.50 ERA) could mean he’s nothing without Leo Mazzone — or at least the ear of Greg Maddux or John Smoltz. Catcher Victor Martinez should have another solid year, becoming the next Pudge Rodriguez. In fact, I don’t think any division can match the four that this one boasts: Mauer, Martinez, Rodriguez and, we may soon see, Kansas City’s John Buck. (Three-for-three, the AL East contends with Varitek, Posada and Lopez and the NL East, barring injury, has Piazza, Lieberthal, Lo Duca and Estrada.) Coco Crisp may become a 20-20 guy this year, and if Grady Sizemore is given a chance, might have found himself among the top three Rookie of the Year names come November, had he not had 138 at bats last year.
3. White Sox. Do they really think their Cuban connection — Orlando Hernandez and Jose Contreras — will be enough? I don’t know if El Duque has anything left after effectively sitting out the postseason last year. And Contreras, well, who knows if we’ll ever see what was expected of him. The ChiSox made an interesting move in the offseason, dedicating themselves to more of a small-ball approach. They didn’t abandon the long ball, but everyone’s talking about the Carlos Lee-for-Scott Podsednik deal, clearly a power-for-speed swap. But Pods hit .244 with a .313 on-base percentage. Horrible for a leadoff hitter. With a .313 average and .390 OBP, he might’ve stolen 100 bags.
4. Tigers. Two things we’ll see from this team: They’ll hit, and Jeremy Bonderman will win. A lineup containing Dmitri Young, Ivan Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez will smack the ball, and young guys like Carlos Guillen, Brandon Inge, Carlos Pena and Craig Monroe should evolve further. Detroit’s one of the great, classic, historic franchises and deserves a good team. Alan Trammell, who’s part of that history already as a player, should be able to cement himself as the manager of that turnaround in the next few years. That won’t happen until they can get a couple of arms to slide in behind Bonderman, but with the season I think he could have, that should entice one or two guys to head north this off-season. Bonderman could flirt with 20 wins just two seasons after Mike Maroth lost 21, and Detroit should at least match last year’s 72 wins.
5. Royals. Another team destined to improve, according to Verducci’s analysis, but after a 58-104 season that was the worst in franchise history and second only to the 1964 Athletics’ 57-105 for worst in Kansas City lore, they could improve by 12 games (70-92) and still be two games behind the 2004 Tigers. They’re going to throw some rookies and near-rookies (guys who didn’t play the full season last year, but have more than the maximum at bats or innings required for rookie status) in to the fire, guys like David DeJesus, Mark Teahen, John Buck and Zack Greinke. They’ll perform (15 HR, 20 SB for DeJesus? 20 HR from Buck? 12 wins from Greinke?) but they’ll struggle too (can DeJesus hit .280? Will Buck tire from catching? Can Greinke have a winning record?).
1. Angels. It’s pretty simple: The division winners retooled and got stronger while the also-rans made minor adjustments or moderate improvements. If we thought last season’s outfield of Vlad Guerrero, Garret Anderson and Jose Guillen was impressive, consider it now with Steve Finley in place of Guillen, who’s emotional issues led to his unavailability over the season’s final week and the postseason. The only concern is Finley’s age. I don’t think Anderson’s health will be an issue; before last year, he’d played at least 150 games each season since 1996 and 154 since ’98. The pitching’s solid and the bullpen is among the best in the majors in part because they go with the best guys, ignoring perceived needs like a lefthanded “specialist” who would come in to face one or two lefties, nothing more. If the guys you have can get batters out, regardless of which side of the plate they stand on, you’re better off. That’s part of what makes the Angels so good in the late innings.
2. Athletics. I don’t know if I truly subscribe to the tennents of Moneyball or if I just want to see a small-market club that Bud Selig thinks has no chance to compete continue (along with the Twins) make him eat his words. (Selig did a slimy thing fit for a used car salesman when he allowed his frat brother to buy the A’s without giving Reggie Jackson a chance to get in on the bidding.) But I think with the A’s solid, consistent lineup and promising pitchers, they’ll still win. What I don’t know is if they’ll win enough to get here. This pick is more of a feeling for the rest of the division than faith in what Oakland can accomplish.
3. Rangers. Best offensive infield in the bigs, easily. Most offensive starting rotation in the league, at least. I like Chris Young, but that’s about it. I don’t know that the Rangers can build upon last year’s surprising run. Just look at the Royals from 2003 to 2004. Similar situation: No perceived chance to finish anywhere but last, a new manager, a lineup that can compete but a pitching staff that was as much lucky as good. I don’t think Texas will lose 100 games, but can they win 85? Not so sure of that. I do see a return to 30-30 for Alfonso Soriano and Mark Teixeira may be the first player to hit 50 home runs this season (with Adam Dunn of the Reds following suit within the week).
4. Mariners. I think we saw it in last night’s game: Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson did spark the offense, yet again, but the bullpen blew it with a seven-run fifth inning. Seattle will hit a little more than last year’s horrendous “effort,” but beyond the top four (Ichiro, Jeremy Reed, Beltre, Sexson), what do they have? Bret Boone and Raul Ibanez have promise, but they were part of the problem last year. The rotation may be as shaky as the Rangers’, both of which have an aging lefty at the front (Jamie Moyer and Kenny Rogers). And, well, we saw last night what the bullpen in front of Eddie Guardado can do.
Done. 1:06 p.m. and Mike Maroth has just thrown the first pitch to DeJesus. Close. (I’m ignoring that Brewers-Pirates game, since it’s not on the MLB Extra Innings package.)