Tuesday, March 26, 2013

2013 American League Predictions: The West Is The Best

Yes, I'm Old, But This Applies
For most of my adult life, the best pro basketball has been played in the West. As something of a night owl, this hasn't bothered me that much; I'm happy to catch a good game at 10-11pm, rather than slog though a week one in an earlier hour. But it has contributed to my disconnect from a lot of folks in regards to how good hoop is; if all you've watched is the Celtics, Bulls and Sixers, you've seen a lot of stuff that's hard on the eyes over the years. Denver, Oklahoma City, the Clippers -- that's the stuff you want.

Well, the same thing is about to happen in baseball.

ESPN is going to show dozens of Red Sox - Yankee games, and they are going to take 4 fours as always, and just be crimes against nature. You won't even get the cheap credit of watching two 90-win teams or probable playoff players; instead, it's going to be one wild-card contender at most.

This is going to have big ramifications for baseball. Instead of a regional sport with national push due to the existence of strong teams in the halls of media and advertising, you're going to have decentralized money, more parity in the free agent game, and the head offices praying hard that their investments in overseas viewers paying off, the way that the NBA has been cashing hard Chinese checks for years. Avoiding Northeast dominance and such a clear caste system of moneyed teams is definitely the best thing for the leagues in the long run, but as they say in accounting, in the long run, we're all dead. Just as dead as the idea that Boston v. New York is must endure TV...

Anyway, enough of the overview. Let's get into the AL, by division.

AL East

Tampa 90-72
Toronto 88-76
New York 84-78
Baltimore 77-85
Boston 75-8

Time is getting short on the low-window Tampa time in the spotlight, as Cy Young winner David Price will soon be off to greener pastures, and the departure of BJ Upton is going to cause issues down the line. The idea that you are going to try to win what still might be baseball's best division with its worst everyday first baseman (James Loney, who should probably never have been a regular) is just all kinds of insane, too. But the starting staff is just world-class, they have to run into a healthy season from 3B Evan Longoria one of these years, and they have the cohesion that others will lack.

Toronto will contend all year, both for the division and wild card, but every aspect of this team has question marks about it. WIll R.A. Dickey and Joshn Johnson adapt to the AL East? Can the bullpen keep it together when they don't have a track record of health? Is Jose Bautista and Brett Lawrie going to stay in the lineup and mash? Can someone finally get Adam Lind back in gear, and is Melky Cabrera just a PED Achiever? And how long will Jose Reyes last on turf? If there were just a few less questions, I'd be all over this team; they are the only club in the division with the potential to win 100. But instead, they'll win 88.

Yankee Fan is freaking out, and for good reason. Economy does not suit this franchise, who spent the better part of the last 20 years walking away from tire fires like the Kei Igawa, Jason Giambi and Alex Rodriguez signings like they were someone else's problem, but now that New Steinbrenners are in the house and caring about the bottom line, GM Brian Cashman has to make due with retreads in the time of injury that's going to happen to old teams in a presumably PED-free age. The farm system is loaded, and there are still a half dozen players here that compare with anyone, but that's not how baseball works. This is a .500 club, and maybe even less than that if they don't stop moping without SS Derek Jeter around, the way they did in the ALCS last year.

At the tail end of the division are Baltimore, who is getting all kinds of hate from the regression police, and Boston, who really seem like they should be punished more for their recent contract and managerial whiffs, only to have the Dodgers airlift them out of despair. What the world is missing about the Miracle Birds year of 2012 is that many of the players doing the work were young or on the rise; full regression to the bad old days isn't very likely, especially with horses like Dylan Bundy and Manny Machado in focus. This team could contend without too much insanity going on, and certainly won't fall back into the 100-loss abyss, but the good bounces and health won't repeat. As for Boston, instead of taking their lumps and running some very promising young players out there, they went out and rented broken down wrecks like Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli to distract the populace. Weak. There's potential here if Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz can become a great 1-2 start to the rotation, and John Lackey has shown signs of not being a total gas can... but there's way too much to overcome here, and that doesn't even get into the health issues of Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia.

AL Central

Detroit 92-70
Kansas City 81-81
Cleveland 76-86
Chicago 75-87
Minnesota 63-99

The Tigers are going to roll this division, and roll it easily. Last year's monster lineup gets back Victor Martinez to provide production in the DH spot, Alex Avila will have a bounce back, and Avasail Garcia has gotten his feet wet. I even like Jhonny Peralta's chances to produce, and Austin Jackson has breakout potential. Only a mild return to earth for Miguel Cabrera, and maybe a little fade from Prince Fielder, makes this lineup at all manageable. On the pitching side, the AL doesn't get better than Verlander-Scherzer-Fister-Sanchez, and actually, I'm not sure that's not true for all of baseball. The closer situation is a little scary, but Jim Leyland will work it out by the end of the year. This is your best bet for a playoff team in the AL.

Kansas City finally makes it to relevance this year on the back of James Shields and young position players that start to hit near their pedigree. They also have the division's best bullpen, but the SPs will eventually burn it out. I think they are going to be in the mix for the wild-card before fading late. Cleveland's pitching is so bad, Scott Kazmir -- Scott Kazmir! -- has earned a starting job. The White Sox have given Jeff Keppinger -- Jeff Keppinger! -- the job at third, so you can kind of guess they aren't going to hit. If you combine these clubs, you might have something, but that's not how the world works.

There's something to be said for Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley and maybe even Lonnie Chisenhall, and manager Terry Francona knows what he's doing, but this starting staff might be the worst in the majors. Seriously, this organization actually brought Daisuke Matsuzaka to camp for something other than making their hitters feel better about life; I guess he's worse than Kazmir now, but when the back end of your rotation sounds like Newark Bears rejects, that's a little telling. As for the White Sox, a bad year couldn't happen to a better television crew (the Internet makes Ken Harrelson a national problem), but the offense is way too dependent on injury-prone Paul Konerko and iffy outfielder Alex Rios, and they are going to miss the fluke production of departing contract year catcher AJ Pyrzinski. I also suspect that Jake Peavy isn't going to hold up.

Bringing up the rear are the Minnesota Twins, an organization that doesn't seem to get that striking out the opposition, or developing players that could take a walk and/or hit for power. can be a big part of winning baseball games. The starting staff is weak, the bullpen is ordinary at best, and the offense needs Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau to perform at MVP levels just to think about .500. There's some talent in the minors, but not on the mound, so let's just move on.

AL West

Los Angeles 93-69
Oakland 89-73
Texas 87-75
Seattle 80-82
Houston 65-97

Meet the new best division in baseball. And it's not even that close, really. Pity the poor Astros, except they don't deserve it, and will be good reasonably soon anyway, seeing as how they are sitting on money and have new management that has a clue...

The Angels are the only team in the division to have a real margin for error, which is a good thing when you have as many dead money deals as they do; at least they found someone (the Yankees) to give them a little oft the money they were going to set on fire in the presence of Vernon Wells. Luckily for them, the starting lineup is the best in the conference anyway, and the starting pitching and bullpen is serious, even without Ryan Madson. The minors also have talent in the event of injury, and they have shown themselves to be buyers whenever there is a chance at the post season. There's a lot to like here, even if the owner and manager aren't quite on the same page.

As for my A's, they are a lot like the Orioles, in that the regression police are coming down hard on them for all of those come from behind wins... but not quite getting that they won with talented young'uns, or that a full year of OF Yoenis Cespedes is going to be a nice boost, along with 2B Scott Sizemore. There will be some givebacks from OF Josh Reddick and the platoon players at 1B, but C John Jaso is a boost, and the offense isn't going to whiff as much as it did in 2012. Which just leaves the pitching and luck. They'll be in the mix all year, and when they are, they tend to make deals for the stretch run. I'm enthused.

Texas is looking a little past the event horizon to me, what with the defection of Josh Hamilton, the long-overdue departure of Michael Young, and odd machinations involving figurehead Nolan Ryan and manager Ron Washington. How 2012 ended was in no way encouraging either, with the club falling apart down the stretch and getting bounced by the Orioles in the play-in game. There's still plenty of talent and money here, and top-line talent (2B Jurickson Profar, 3B Mike Olt) in the system... but it feels like a transition year to me, especially with the A's and Mariners looking frisky. Too much going on in this division to just fatten up on the slugs anymore.

As for the Mariners, they've had a wildly successful spring training, are bringing in the fences at Safeco, and still win the first game of every series when SP Felix Hernandez takes the mound. There's also sneaky talent here, with 3B Kyle Seager and 2B Dustin Ackley combining with 1B Justin Smoak (he might actually hit now, I know, shocking) and DH Kendrys Morales (yeah, he's here now) to form an offense that might surprise. I also really like the depth of the bullpen. But C Jesus Montero isn't, if you catch my drift, and the talent's not quite ready to walk the ladder. There's hope here now, though, and that's the first time you can say that in a really long time.

Bringing up the rear are the new to the AL Astros, who are doing this the right way: from the ground up, for as little money as possible, with cast-offs that might have real promise. Instead of trotting out no hopers like 1B Carlos Lee and 3B Chris Johnson, the club is trying out 1B Chris Carter and 3B Matt Dominguez, both of which can do some things while being young and cheap. I also like 2B Jose Altuve and OF prospect Jonathan Singleton, but the next good Houston team will arrive in 2015 at earliest. For now, they are going to take a while lotta lumps, as Pete Puma would say.

Tomorrow, we'll do this with the National League, and on Wednesday, I'll roll out my picks for all of the major awards. And if you get the sense that I'm more than a little enthused about the year to come, well, yes: there's a very real chance that the A's are going to be better than both the Yankees and Red Sox, and baseball means the end of a ridiculously long winter.  I drove my kid to school this morning with snow in the air; that's just got to stop.

Let's play ball already.

Hell, let's play two.

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