With games starting as Sunday night when the newly minted American League Houston Astros host their cross-state rival Texas Rangers on Sunday night, the 2013 Major League Baseball season is upon us. No more talk about the Hot Stove, no more trade or free agent speculation, just baseball. Pure and simple.
But we still have a few days left before the first pitch is thrown and the long, arduous season is underway. That means we have a few more minutes to make some predictions and assumptions about how things will play out and who will be wearing the crown when the dust settles.
Today, we'll work on the American League, and then we'll follow that up with the National League tomorrow. So let's get started, shall we?
American League East
1.) Toronto Blue Jays
2.) Tampa Bay Rays (WC)
3.) Boston Red Sox
4.) Baltimore Orioles
5.) New York Yankees
No team in baseball did more to improve their overall team than did the Toronto Blue Jays. Adding three quality starters (R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, and Josh Johnson) to their starting five and then securing two solid top of the order hitters (Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera) and a pair of universal infielders (Maicer Izturis and Emilio Bonifacio), the Blue Jays may be the deepest team in baseball. They will beat teams on the mound, on the basepaths, and in the batter's box. Some pundits worry about how the team will gel, but the players acquired are all professionals of the highest order and that shouldn't be an issue. The AL East, in a weakened state, should be their division to lose.
Tampa will take second place and one of the two wild-cards in the American League. The Rays have the one thing all teams envy, and that's a deep pitching staff that will keep them in any game, and help them win quite a few. Unfortunately, the line-up outside of Evan Longoria is at its most barren and Tampa will again struggle to score runs. That may improve once the team bites the bullet and promotes Wil Myers, but they'll need to wait three weeks before that happens.
I may shock some people by picking the Red Sox to vault up to third place this season, and then again some will think this is a homer pick. That said, Boston did a lot to improve themselves throughout the order, adding Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, and Ryan Dempster. Furthermore, the pair of Clay Buchholz and Lon Lester have looked great this spring and they'll have a healthy Will Middlebrooks back. The only question mark is David Ortiz, but the team is deeper and may be able to withstand a short-term loss of Big Papi.
The final two squads could easily flip-flop in the standings. As much as I appreciated what the Orioles did in 2012, I think they overachieved and are in for a market correction. Baltimore did little to improve on a squad that managed only a +7 run differential and won more games with their bullpen than any other team in the American League.
Meanwhile, the Yankees are going to struggle to overcome the injuries to Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez. They may have a solid starting five, but they'll lose more offense than any team in baseball for the first three months of the season, and an aging Kevin Youkilis, Travis Hafner, Vernon Wells, and Lyle Overbay are not going to be the answer the Yankees need.
American League Central
1.) Detroit Tigers
2.) Cleveland Indians
3.) Chicago White Sox
4.) Kansas City Royals
5.) Minnesota Twins
The AL Central is likely going to be a brutal division in 2013. The Tigers are still the toast of the town and should be better than the 88-win team that won the division in 2012. The addition of Torii Hunter and the return of Victor Martinez should make the line-up even deeper and the pitching staff should be solid, with Justin Verlander topping the rotation and a full season of Anibal Sanchez to add to the mix. Closer is a concern, but the role is overrated anyway.
The Cleveland Indians have flirted with respectability each of the last two seasons, but stumbled in the second half of both. The front office reloaded by bringing in Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Mark Reynolds, and Brett Myers, but we should all keep an eye on Scott Kazmir. If Kazmir can be a shadow of what he used to be, this could be a very entertaining team to watch.
The White Sox have a lot of good going for them, but they are still only a third place team at best. Chris Sale and Jake Peavy are a solid 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation, but the rest of the starting five has its question marks. Will Tyler Flowers be able to carry A.J. Pierzysnki's weight? Will Adam Dunn ever get himself away from the Mendoza line? Can the starting outfield avoid regressing in 2013? That's a lot of questions to answer to make a two-team jump for the division title.
I really like what the Kansas City Royals did this winter. The front office finally said "we need to win", and they went out and traded their top prospect (Myers) to Tampa for James Shields and Wade Davis, and acquired Ervin Santana from the Angels. Still, will it all be for naught when these markedly better Royals squad still has to jump three other teams in the division? Will they regret losing a talent of Myers' proportions?
What can you say about the Minnesota Twins? This is a still a team that revolves around Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, but their window of opportunity has passed and the team seems to be set on building for the future. The fans will be treated to a talented rookie in Aaron Hicks and the team will likely turn to other young building blocks as the season progresses. The lack of a solid pitching staff and a young line-up likely means that the Twins will make more noise at the trade deadline than they will in the standings. Expect Morneau and Josh Willingham to be shopped extensively when the Twins fall out of contention in early June.
American League West
1.) Los Angeles Angels
2.) Oakland Athletics (WC)
3.) Texas Rangers
4.) Seattle Mariners
5.) Houston Astros
To me, this is the toughest division to pick. In the end, I went with the Angels taking the title, as they are just a dangerous team to have to face consistently. The addition of Josh Hamilton to a line-up that already contained Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, and Mark Trumbo will be devastating for even the best rotations to face. Jered Weaver is a solid ace at the top of the rotation, but the rest of the starting five is made up of number 4 starters at best, and that's giving Joe Blanton a lot of credit. Still, the team's offense should carry them.
Oakland is my runner-up, but could very well steal the division again. The starting rotation is as deep as they come, and Billy Beane's teams always seem to have another arm waiting in the wings, which they may need if Brett Anderson continues to struggle with his health. Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick will likely continue to improve and are solid offensive building blocks. The addition of Jed Lowrie is another good buy-low move by Beane.
What were the Texas Rangers doing this winter? A team with so much to gain just by retaining their top offensive weapon, Texas instead let Hamilton walk to a division rival and did nothing to replace him. They have the best prospect in the game in Jurickson Profar, but no place to play him, so why they couldn't swing a deal for Justin Upton with Elvis Andrus as a center piece, I don't know. The combination of Yu Darvish and Matt Harrison at the top of the rotation is solid, but losing out on Greinke is going to hurt them.
The Seattle Mariners, like the Royals above, did a lot to improve their team, first bringing in the fences, then bringing Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse to help an anemic offense support one of the most underrated pitching staffs in baseball. Still, they face an uphill battle with the Rangers, A's, and Angels still having stronger rosters to fall back on. The presence of Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Mike Zunino, and Nick Franklin gives the Mariners a top-5 prospect list to be envied by any organization.
Moving from the NL Central to the AL West was the right move for the Astros and will help them create a natural rivalry with the Rangers. Unfortunately, they have a few years of building a roster ahead of them, especially after dismantling the current one. There is something to be said about building a winner by losing on the field, but entertaining is not one of them.