To say the American League has been unpredictable lately is an understatement. The last two seasons have seen the AL pennant go to a team that had lost 93 games the previous year (Boston) and one that had not reached the post season for 29 years (Kansas City). So what on earth could happen this year?
We’ll start with what has usually been the toughest division in baseball – the AL East. Since wild cards begun in 1995 the AL East has had two teams in the Division series in 15 out of 20 years. But last year the AL East did not even get the second wild card and a repeat is a possibility. The Red Sox have added Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to an already strong hitting line up but have no ace after failing to resign Jon Lester. The Yankees have one pitcher who is an ace if he is fit – Masahiro Tanaka – and one who was an ace but is past his best – CC Sabathia – but this team is creaking with old age which is why it got wrecked by injuries the last two years and could be so again. It would be nice to see the Blue Jays “do a KC” and end a long post season drought (now the longest in baseball. Post season baseball has not been played in Canada since 1993) and like the Red Sox the offence is good enough – Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin are excellent additions to an offence that already had Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion but ace Marcus Stroman is out for the year which leaves the Blue Jays relying on 40 year old RA Dickey and 36 year old Mark Buehrle for pitching. The Rays – starting their post Joe Maddon- Andrew Freidman era – have the opposite problem. This franchise has never been short of pitching but hitting could be a problem – especially as Will Myers was traded in the off season.
The surprise to me in the AL East is how under rated Baltimore are. Baseball Prospectus rates their post season chances at 19.3 % – astonishingly low for a team who did win the division by 12 games last year. True they’ve lost last year’s home run leader Nelson Cruz and Nick Markasis but against that they’ll hope for full seasons from Manny Machado and Matt Wieters. They are not a team of stars – Adam Jones apart – but they are greater than the sum of their parts and unless Boston signs an ace like Cole Hamels the Os have a good chance of upsetting the odds and defending their division title.
What I’m going to write next could either make me look like a genius or an idiot but here goes. This year could see the end of the Detroit Tigers domination of the AL Central. The team is going for a fifth successive title but stars Miguel Cabrera Victor Martinez and Justin Verlander aren’t getting any younger and already have had injuries pre season. If they miss a lot of games Detroit will be in trouble. They are still capable of making me look stupid but the pressure is on. The team is getting older and their window is closing – especially as David Price will be a free agent after 2015. This could be their last chance to crown their era with a world championship.
Especially as three of the teams in the division are improving. One is amazed that Baseball Prospectus rate the Royals’ post season chances as low as 10.3%. They are the defending AL Champions. While it is true that Billy Butler and James Shields are gone the lights out bull pen and brilliant outfield of last year are still intact. The Royals could win the division or miss out on the post season. The key might be Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas . Both did well in the post season but not in the regular season and will need to reproduce the post season form for KC to win the division.
The White Sox are the wild card here though. Although they lost 89 games last year they did have talent – Jose Abreu and Chris Sale come to mind – and have strengthened with Jeff Samardzia, Melky Cabrera and David Robertson. If Abreu avoids second season syndrome and Sale – a future Cy Young winner – gets fit quick (he’ll miss the start of the season) – the White Sox – despite all the hype about the Cubs – could well be the team from Chicago playing post season baseball. And the Indians can’t be ruled out either especially if Cy Young winner Corey Kluber maintains his form (the Twins can be ruled out though). The four non Detroit teams have averaged 75.5 wins in the last four years but that will change this season. The Central will definitely send two teams to the post season and like its NL counterpart in 2013 could send three.
That of course will depend on the AL West. The Astros and my team the Rangers (since ace Yu Darvish is out for the season as he requires Tommy John surgery) can be ruled out of contention. The As have gutted their roster but also made interesting moves. They are back in the role of underdogs which they like and while I don’t think they’ll make the post season they won’t fall back into pre 2012 mediocrity either. The two favourites here are the reigning champion Angels and the much improved Mariners. The Angels won’t win 98 games again – especially as Josh Hamilton has got into off field trouble again – but they still have Mike Trout who is well quite good. The worst they’ll do is win a wild card. But they might not defend the division though as the Mariners look like they have their best team since Ichiro’s rookie season in 2001. Last year they were one game shy of the post season despite run scoring problems. The signing of Cruz will solve that problem as well as offering Robinson Cano protection. While they won’t win 116 games as in 2001 they should at worst win a wild card and are my tip just to pip the Angels. One thing is certain. Unless disaster strikes and ace “King” Felix Hernandez is injured the “King’s Court” at Safeco Field should see their hero pitch in the post season at last.
So I would say that the Os the White Sox and the Mariners are my favourites for the AL divisions this year. But the fact that none can be regarded as certainties sums up the “junior circuit” which looks like it could be as unpredictable this year as it has been in the previous two.