As temperatures and races for the final roster spots heat up in Florida and Arizona, we may finally be far enough into Spring Training to look ahead at the real season with some degree of reason. So here we have my look at the American League, from A to Z.
I’ll look at each team and assess their strengths and weaknesses, beginning with “A”. The “A” is the A-list Talent, one player who really is or could be, the face of the franchise and the one the team needs to produce on a high-level.
Skipping ahead to “Q”, we have the Question Mark. One player (or in a few examples, situations) who could be great or could be terrible. Obviously, the former bodes better for the team’s outlook than the latter.
“Y”… well, I”m channeling Prince here a little (the singer, not the hefty Rangers first baseman) and using that for an abbreviation for why. Why the team could compete or why they could fall on their faces. In this age of relative parity, the difference is often deceptively small.
And at last we look at “Z”. Any of my readers who’ve “enjoyed” years of working in retail, like I have, probably know that the bottom line is the Z-reading… the end of the day tally when all the sales on a till are added up and printed out. In this case, the Z-reading is my best guess as to where the team will finish off at season’s end.
Baltimore – the Orioles surprised last year winning an uncharacteristically weak division last year and seem so confident that it was no fluke they let two major stars migrate away without any viable replacements.
A: Adam Jones . One of the games best and most reliable outfielders will be called upon more than ever this year without Nelson Cruz and defacto team captain Nick Markakis in the dugout. Last year he hit 29 homers, hit .281 and had a .780 OPS– respectable. But disturbing, third straight year of declining numbers.
Q: Matt Wieters. Not long ago widely considered best young catcher in the game, coming back from surgery that made him miss most of last season. Is playing already in spring, but questions as to how ready he will be; as of 12th he’s 0 for 20 at plate and even before injuries, his slugging pct. had dropped off from 2011-13. If his arm can’t handle strain of catching 100+ games, O’s look to JP Arencibia or Caleb Joseph, neither a happy thought for fans. Need a strong comeback in order to contend seriously in ’15.
Y: Rotation.No-name group were surprisingly good last year. O’s have to hope that Bud Norris (15-8, 3.65) and Wei-Yin Chen (16-6, 3.54) seasons weren’t the career years they looked like and young Kevin Gausman continues to work his way towards the A-list. And maybe Ubaldo Jimenez will have one of his tremendous ten or twelve game stretches he has every four or five years. Otherwise, they’ll be on bad end of a lot of 10-7 and 9-8 games.
Z: Have to catch too much lightning in a bottle for second year in a row to win. On the other hand, an adequate team still in the weakest East divsion in over a decade. Prediction: 81 wins, second place tie.
Boston – the Red Sox last three seasons- last place, first place with World Series win, last place. They hope the trend will continue this year and they spent big to improve their chances with Hanley Ramirez, “Panda”, and a host of new starters brought in.
A: David Ortiz. Hard to imagine that about 4 years back, many thought Big Papi was done; last year’s 35 HR/103 RBI show (his best since 2007) he’s got some pop left in his bat. However, his .263 average is second lowest in his career in years with over 300 at bats. Sox need him to have another big year if he wants to celebrate his 40th birthday (in November) with yet another ring. Needs 34 homers to make 500 Club, by the way.
Q: Hanley Ramirez. Back to where he started (for all of two games back in ’05), last few seasons have been a bit up and down, but should deliver at least decent numbers at plate. Big question though is how he handles a new position (LF) in strange Fenway Park. Could become a defensive black hole for them.
Y: Discord. No team is going to have 25 guys who are all best friends, but Boston seems prone to extremes. In good years, a merry bunch of “idiots” growing beards and hanging out together; in bad years 25 men, 26 taxis. Bad years seem to coincide with losing records. A lot of new faces to mix in , including Hanley R. who has a bit of a reputation, and Pablo Sandoval who celebrated his World Series win by blasting almost his entire former locker,saying he only liked one (!) of his teammates in SF. Seems like it could be a powderkeg in the locker room.
Z: Rotation rebuilt lacks real ‘ace’ but looks decent; World Series looks a longshot but division title realistic. 87 wins, first.
New York – this ain’t your Daddy’s Yankees. Coming off their worst season since 1995, they surprised the sports world by adhering more to a “Moneyball” off-season, staying away from the high-priced talent on the free agent market. Nothing symbolizes the new Pinstripes more than the fact that Didi Gregorious takes over from the Captain at Shortstop.
A: Masahiro Tanaka. Before an injury shut him down last year, Tanaka was rolling towards Rookie of the Year. Although not on par with his 2013 season-for-the-ages in Japan, his numbers (13-5, 2.77 ERA, 141K/21BB) hint at him becoming the best Asian import pitcher to the MLB so far.
Q: Alex Rodriguez. Forgetting the arrogance and the PEDs, A-Rod was once a truly elite player. However,he turns 40 mid-season and his last 30 homer season was 2010, his last .800 OPS season the year after. Did his year off let him relax and practise? Even if he isn’t tired out by fielding (and is just a DH), it’s difficult to imagine him hitting better than .250 or 18, 20 home runs. But he just might surprise- I wouldn’t quite write him off yet, especially if he thinks he has something to prove.
Y: Gray Beards. There’s A-Rod, and more. Mark Teixeira is an old 35, coming off his worst year in a 12 year career; Carlos Beltran hit a career low .233 with the lowest OPS since 2000; CC Sabathia, even if healthy (a big if) enters his 15th season coming off an injury-shortened season and numbers in every category that have dropped precipitously since ’11. There’s a huge bundle of money tied up in aging players who need to turn back the clock if the Yanks hope to compete.
Z: There are Grade 2 students in the Big Apple who don’t remember what it’s like to see a World Series parade! They still won’t by Grade 3. 78 wins, fourth place.
Tampa Bay- Baseball’s Cinderella team had its ride turn into a pumpkin last year, finishing below .500 after a surprising run of six good years. The pitching was still there, but hitting was worst in AL, with dreadful .367 slugging pct. and league low 612 runs. Their response was trading away ’13 Rookie of Year Wil Myers and allowing Ben Zobrist and temperemental Yunel Escobar to get away.
A: Evan Longoria. Seems surprising he’s entering his 8th season already. the only real hitter for opponents to fear in their lineup, but last year his .404 slugging was a career low, and his home runs came one per 29 AB- previously he’d averaged one per 18. His last Silver Slugger Award was in 2009, Gold Glove was in 2010.
Q: Kevin Cash.Rookie manager to deal with a roster chock-full of rookies. Cash is intelligent and has good baseball credentials but will have his hands, or feet, full trying to fill the shoes of Joe Maddon, arguably the game’s most popular manager both with his players and fans.
Y: Rotation. Tampa has built its club on a constant stream of good new pitchers working up through the organization, allowing them to stay competitive and not miss the likes of James Shields and David Price much as they move along. This year’s lineup with the likes of Jake Odorizzi, Alex Cobb , Matt Moore, supplemented by Drew Smyly (their one big acquisition of the off-season) looks promising. They’ll need to be way more than just promising for the Rays to come close to contending.
Z: Its hard to know the difference between ‘best case’ and ‘worst case’ scenarios for the Rays: eg. what if Evan Longoria demands a trade? What if attendance drops even more in the ever-echoing Trop? Their best future might lie in starting from scratch in a new city. This year though, the few Floridian fans will have little to cheer. 69 wins, fifth place.
Toronto- the Jays started the Off Season like gangbusters, but then hibernated through the rest of the winter and ended up with a still shaky pitching staff and looking weak “down the middle.”
A: Jose Bautista.three Silver Slugger Awards, three 100 run seasons, three 100 RBI years. Last year comparison between him and MVP Mike Trout: Trout – .287 avg, 36 HR, .377 On-base, 184 strikouts. Bautista -.286 avg, 35 HR, .403 On-base, 96 strikeouts. If he and his mid-lineup companions stay healthy, another 50 homer season isn’t out of the question. His hamstring is a concern though, last season’s 155 games played was most since ’10.
Q: Johan Santana. With Mark Buehrle and RA Dickey the only real veterans in the starting rotation, and young Drew Hutchison added in, there are still two spots to fill. It would be much better for Jays to have to rely on only one untested rookie rather than two. Santana is only 36, but days of him being a dominating pitcher seem a lifetime back. Still, if can deliver 21 starts, of varying quality (as he did with the Mets in ’12) it will be a big lift for the team.
Y: Brett Cecil. Seemed the favourite to take over as closer when Casey Janssen left town, though young Aaron Sanchez got a taste of the job last season. Now with Marcus Stroman out for the year, Sanchez is being shuffled quickly back to becoming a starter, leaving the 9th inning all upto Cecil. As written here previously, he may be upto the job- if his shoulder lets him. That he hasn’t thrown yet in spring is disconcerting to say the least. The 2015 ‘pen looks shallow at best, if Cecil misses a significant stretch, Toronto fans may suffer through a staggering number of opponent come-from-behind wins.
Z: Before Stroman tore up his knee, I had the Jays optimistically penciled in to tie the Red Sox and end their 21-year playoff drought. Now even with surprisingly lacklustre divisional competition and potentially the best 3-4-5 hitting combo in the game, hard to imagine them winning more than 81, tied for second.
We look west, to the Central and West divisions next week.