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Saturday, April 05, 2008

Bold Predictions (American League)

Detroit has fallen to 0-5, being man-handled by the Royals and White Sox. The Yankees are in danger of being swept by their arch-rival...the Tampa Bay Rays. Are these flukes or omens? Here's my preview of the American League.

AL East:

1. Boston Red Sox
2. Toronto Blue Jays
3. New York Yankees
4. Tampa Bay Rays
5. Baltimore Orioles

I've been forecasting the end of the Yankees run of postseason appearances for several years, never to any avail, obviously, but I look at New York and again see a team that, despite massive offensive potential, failed to address the issues that very nearly kept them out of the playoffs in 2007. They've got a shaky rotation and a shakier bullpen. Yankee fans will cite the arrival of Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, and Joba Chamberlain as indicators of inevitable improvements in the pitching staff, but beware this heavy reliances on very young, very inexperienced arms. While Joba was truly dominant late last season and probably will be again as Mo Rivera's set-up man, the Yankees pitching was actually worse in the second half of 2007 (during the vaunted arrival of the Baby Yanks) than it was before the All-Star Break. Unlike the Red Sox and Blue Jays, the Yankees do not have strong candidates to step into the rotation in case of injuries or ineffectiveness, nor do they have a bevy of strong bullpen arms. Once again, all three of these teams will be very difficult opponents (as will the Rays, with their renovated rotation), but I surmise that pitching will make the difference, and Toronto and Boston hold the advantage in that department.

Division MVP: David Ortiz (Red Sox)
Division Cy Young: Roy Halladay (Blue Jays)
Division Rookie of the Year: Joba Chamberlain (Yankees)
Division Comeback Player of the Year: Manny Ramirez (Red Sox)
Sleepers: A. J. Burnett, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin McGowan, Cliff Floyd, Jon Lester, Coco Crisp

AL Central:

1. Detroit Tigers
2. Cleveland Indians (Wild Card)
3. Chicago White Sox
4. Kansas City Royals
5. Minnesota Twins

There are no patsies in the AL Central. Each of these teams is full of talent, with lots of potential on both sides of the baseball. The Royal and Twins will probably suffer some rough stretches with their young rotations (especially since they have to face incredibly deep lineups), but pitchers like Zach Greinke, Boof Bonser, Kevin Slowey, and Brian Bannister aren't far away from being dependable, quality starters.

Detroit's shaky relief corps could keep them from living up to expectations (some analysts are already talking about scoring records). If Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya cannot return and be at full strength by June and Zach Miner and Denny Bautista don't mature into competent middle-inning guys, the Tigers will need to mortgage more of their deep farm system to patch up the 'pen. The Indians team may not be as sexy, since they don't have big-ticket free agents like Sheffield, Cabrera, and Willis, but they do have a deeper pitching staff and a lineup that is remarkable in its own right.

Chicago could be the darkhorse in this race. Nearly every member of the White Sox underachieved in 2007, so even without the additions of Orlando Cabrera, Nick Swisher, Octavio Dotel, and Scott Linebrink the Sox would be good bets to be among the most improved teams in the league. Chicago is going to hit and they have an impressive collection of power arms in the bullpen. The starting rotation will end up dictating whether or not they are serious contenders. With the exception of Mark Buehrle, it is a staff full of underachievers. Veterans like Javier Vazquez and Jose Contreras who have not lived up to perennial Ace status and top prospects like Gavin Floyd and Jon Danks who are short on options and have yet to produce in the big leagues. Even Buehrle, only 29, who posted five consecutive seasons of at least 14 wins and 220 innings to go with an ERA well under 4.00 from '01 to '05 has shown signs of premature decline the last two seasons (22-22, 4.31 ERA). In 2005 the White Sox came out of nowhere to be the best team in baseball. The division is much better now, so I don't think they can do the same thing again, but they aren't going to get rolled over by good teams the way they did last season (18-33 against playoff-bound teams).

Division MVP: Gary Sheffield (Tigers)
Division Cy Young: Justin Verlander (Tigers)
Division Rookie of the Year: Billy Butler (Royals)
Division Comeback Player of the Year: Cliff Lee (Indians)
Sleepers: Javier Vazquez, Franklin Gutierrez, Gil Meche, Alexei Ramirez, Jensen Lewis

AL West:

1. Los Angeles Angels
2. Seattle Mariners
3. Oakland Athletics
4. Texas Rangers

This is probably the easiest division to forecast. Seattle made it more interesting when they went out and got Erik Bedard. They now possess a formidable pitching staff to go with a respectable lineup. However, L.A. (of Anaheim) still has to be the clear favorite. Even with Kelvim Escobar out until at least mid-season and John Lackey missing a few starts to begin the year, the Angels have plenty of pitching. Jered Weaver is on the cusp of excellency and before last season Ervin Santana was considered equally promising. The addition of Torii Hunter and improvements from Gary Matthews, Casey Kotchman, Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, and Mike Napoli with easily give the Angels the best lineup in their division. Plus, the Angels always strong farm system can buoy the major-league club with promising rookies like Nick Adenhart, Brandon Wood, and Hank Conger as the season unfolds.

Division MVP: Vladimir Guerrero (Angels)
Division Cy Young: Jered Weaver (Angels)
Division Rookie of the Year: Wladimir Belentien (Mariners)
Division Comeback Player of the Year: Ervin Santana (Angels)
Sleeper: Adrian Beltre, Rich Harden, Howie Kendrick, Milton Bradley, Jose Lopez, Emil Brown

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