Thursday, April 06, 2006

It's that time of year again. The laptops are open, the baseball enyclopedias are thumbed through, ESPN Insider accounts are renewed. Opening Day '06! And what does that mean for baseball fans everywhere? Predicting the outcomes of 2,430 games before they occur!

Here are my American League predictions for 2006. There are excellent races in all three divisions and it should be a very exciting year for everyone outside of Kansas City, Tampa, and Baltimore. I'll get to the Parity National League later this week.

AL East:

1. Red Sox

The Red Sox worked very proactively in the offseason despite alleged chaos at the top of their administrative ladder. They refused to cripple their payroll by letting go Damon, and dramatically overhauled their two biggest sore spots last season: lineup age and the bullpen. That said, will it be enough to win the division?

I really like the Coco Crisp trade (that is until Marte is an All-Star and Crisp is on the Yankees in 3-6 years), and the Sox got younger at third, catcher and the outfield too. Loretta (health-permitting) is a very solid 2B and if Lowell finds his stroke and head he won't make the loss of Mueller seem quite as horrible (although they'll miss the latter all season). First base continues to disappoint, will the Sox ever replace Mo Vaughn, and they're a Manny injury away from third place. The bullpen went from arguably the worst in the AL to arguably the second-best (Cleveland/Oakland), Red Sox fans are chomping at the bit to give Hansen/Delcarmen/Papelbon regular innings, and the rotation is actually quite solid (we have four #3 and #4 pitchers and no true #5). If Keith Foulke has an epiphany, watch out. I personally think that the Sox-Yankees-Jays will be in a race for the title down to the last two weeks of the season, every divisional game will feel like the playoffs, and whichever team remains healthy or gets career years out of a few guys will claim the title. What's the Red Sox's ace in the hole? They have the most energetic and creative front office this side of Beanetown.

2. Yankees

Do the Yankees possibly have their greatest lineup within the last 10, 20, 30 years? Yes. Do they have a hall of fame pitcher or two? Yes. Are they locks? Hell no, and the recent annointment of '06 World Series champions by the likes of Stark and Gammons is quite puzzling.

No amount of guts or derring-do is going to hide the fact that the Yankees are 1) Old at the starting pitching position 2) Thin at the pitching position. While true that the free agent market did not particularly tremble with starting depth (how dare Tim Hudson and Ben Sheets sign extensions!), the Yankees still did nothing to address their Achilles' heel. The odds of the Small, Wang and Chacon repeating last year's luck-a-thon is quite low based on their abilities (see John's Yankee column, it's quite illustrative). While the Yankees did add Johnny "mo' money mo' problems" Damon, their lineup already finished with nearly 900 runs the previous year. I suspect they'll end up around the same point next season, perhaps even as high as 915 runs. Damon is certainly a huge upgrade over Cano/Womack at the top of the order, but the end of the Yankee lineup continues to decline. Their 'pen has new faces (Farnsworth is an able pitcher), but I expect a wash at this position by the end of the year. The Yankees could mash their way to the top of the incredibly competitive AL East, but they could pitch/injure themselves into third in a hurry, too. Basically, you don't spend $200 million on your payroll and come away with two 40-year-olds and three (+Wright/Pavano makes five)crappy pitchers. If Rivera ever gets hurt things may unravel in the Bronx in a hurry.

3. Blue Jays

B.J. Ryan is a pretty good reliever, but overpaid. A.J. Burnett is a decent starter, but more overpaid. However, that's the cost of respectability and many trendy pre-season Division/Wild Card picks by the media.

The Blue Jays are a very good team. I can't emphasize that enough. They suffered not one but TWO crippling injuries during '05 and still probably should've at least finished ahead of the Red Sox, if not gone farther. I'm not really sure if they vastly improved themselves with their acquisitions, but if Halladay and Wells have a healthy season for a change (not to mention the health woes of Burnett and Lilly) then the Red Sox and Yankees could be in a for a rude awakening. Again, I seriously doubt we'll know who wins the AL East until we're well into September, and while the Jays may not be quite as startling as their post-signings buzz indicated, they are more than prepared for the season. Is it possible to have three 90 win teams in the AL East in one season?

4. Devil Rays

The Devil Rays are still bad, but they aren't Devil Rays bad. They have a plethora of young players transitioning to the majors, hopefully they'll get the bulk of the work rather than the Dan Micelis on the roster. People have said for the last three years that the Devil Rays are improved and "for real," and while I simply think there aren't enough AL wins to go around to give them much more than 70 wins, they are an improved squad. Hand the ball to your young players, and let them and their young manager form a work ethic and a uniform system. Expect Tampa to be the giant killer that probably decides who wins the AL East more than the contending teams will. If they find an ace pretty soon we might be looking at a very challenging squad in a few years. Expect another barrage of Aubrey Huff trade rumors starting in, oh, the third week of the season and onward.

5. Orioles

Horrible team. The main reason to watch Baltimore this season is to see if Tejada has really aged and fallen off as sharply as some pundits asserted. Maybe Mazzone works some wonders with the pitching staff, but Cabrera and Bedard are not young versions of Glavine and Smoltz, I'm sorry. Expect to see Baltimore in fifth for quite some time to come if their owner doesn't drastically rethink his franchise's relevancy. Hopefully they hand the big innings to Chris Ray as he appears to be one of their few young players ready to shoulder a major load.

AL Central:

1. Indians

This is one of the most fun teams to watch in baseball right now and I've had my eye on them since the day they sent away Colon et. al. They are incredibly gifted on the field and in their lineup. I <3 size="4">2. White Sox

The Chicago White Sox are currently the most overrated team in modern baseball history. They did everything they could to lose the division last season, and made the playoffs because of three factors: 1) Their absurdly spectacular record in one-run games (they were 9-0 against the Indians in such situations alone!) 2) The unheard of durability of their top four starters, who averaged 222 innings, or 6.8 innings per start 3) Incredible good fortune in keeping players off the disabled list.

This year the Chicago bullpen will undoubtedly be busier, and their bullpen depth or durability is questionable, especially since Bobby Jenks is beginning to show why he maybe never caught on with a major league club until last season. While the White Sox did a credible job reinforcing their squad and didn't stand pat (but someone please get McCarthy in the rotation), any sort of injury to their top four starters might have tremendous rippling effects on the roster. All the innings pitched last season and into the playoffs may catch up on a couple arms, too. Offensively speaking the White Sox are a dizzingly inefficient team, and while I know Ozzie thinks "on-base percentage" is an expletive, their play style is going to catch up to them eventually (Scott "energy guy" Podsednik only steals at a 78% clip for example, let alone his and many other players' woeful OBP and SLG statistics). However, expect a banner year from brilliant acquisition Jim Thome, since he gets to concentrate on his hitting and his health rather than having to shoulder the leadership and public relations burdens like he did in Philadelphia and Cleveland. Ken Williams seems to have his head on straight (while I disagree with how he dismantled the Ordonez/Lee/Thomas White Sox he's certainly proactive), but teams tend to go .500 in one-run games, 'ere the fall of the White Sox this season.

3. Twins

Remember when the Twins were the sweethearts of baseball, storming out of the contraction controversy to practically bowl MLB over? The years since have been hard on the team as they've consistently been fored to say farewell to a battery of veterans, suffered an inordinate amount of bad luck, and they non-tendered a certain Papi. If Mauer and Morneau produce this year like everyone thought they would last year, good things are going down in the Metrodome. They possess the least-hyped ace in baseball not named Peavy, and Minnesota has one of the deeper rotations and bullpens in the league. This versatile staff will have to cover a lot for a rather thin lineup, especially by AL standards. If Mauer and Morneau don't mash, and Stewart doesn't remember his contract is up, it's going to be a lonely year for Torii Hunter and expect trade rumors to boil over. They're going to make a big-budget team cry many tears while they vye for a playoff spot in the waning summer sun; and I wouldn't be at all surprised if they leap Chicago this season.

4. Tigers

Detroit seems to be on a mission to acquire every aging former closer on the market. Last year they acquied Urbina and Percival, and while Oogie was sent to Philly (and now jail?), they've turned around by signing Todd Jones. Considering how much of an improvement they've made to their team after that 100-loss season a couple years back, is there a team in the league that gets discussed less? Their lineup is quite serviceable, although I can't imagine Polanco repeating last year's performance when he came close to winning the batting title in both leagues. The rotation has been "bolstered" by the addition of Kenny Rogers, but I can't make up my mind whether that move hurts the Tigers or is merely a wash. The Tigers are unfortunately in a similar position to Baltimore; they have dollars to spend but no one wants to sign, and they can't attract anyone but players who are trying to prove they can still play in the majors. If something crazy happens (the Tiger rotation becomes a powerhouse or another of the Central's Big Three is decimated with injuries) the Tigers may make some noise this summer, but likely not for long.

5. Royals

To quote a friend, "The Kansas City Royals. It's all about the name on the front." While the rest of the AL Central has dramatically improved themselves the last half dozen years, (cf: the late years of the 1990s Cleveland dynasty when they could feast upon 4 awful teams in the AL Central), KC is perpetually stuck in neutral. While I'd hate to see this franchise leave the city, the situation for improvement here seems hopeless unless the next genius GM is discovered by Royal ownership.

AL WEST:

1. Athletics

East Coast-bias aside, Oakland is probably the team to beat in the major leagues this year. Which is somewhat of a scary proposition considering Oakland has a history of making large-scale roster improvements midstream. No team is deeper 1-25, and Oakland has versatility at every position. Power hitters, defensive specialists, inning eaters, strikeout artists, etc. If Chavez and Crosby stay healthy and consistent enough to claim the mantle of stardom everyone expects, we might be looking at a team that remains scary good for at least three more years. Like every squad there are pivotal health concerns on this roster, and I'm sure old-timer baseball guys will crow about a lack of "experience" all season (weren't they in a pennant race until the last few weeks in '05?), but believe-you-me, the Athletics are for real and they're out for revenge after receiving no love from the playoff gods during the Zito-Hudson-Mulder era (slide Jeremy, damnit!). Rich Harden AL Cy Young '06? Frank Thomas reborn?

2. Angels

I was tempted to pick a different team second in the West, but I'm a sucker for that Angel bullpen. While the Orange County Los Angeles of Anaheim California Angels have a competitive pitching staff, their lineup continues its steady decay and they're likely to have a rather anemic offense all season. It's too bad the Yankees didn't seal the deal when Guerrero was a free agent, if only for Vlad's sake. Did he know he was leaving an awfully weak offensive team for another awfully weak offensive team that featured quadruple the payroll? If Ervin "we won't trade Manny for him" Santana is the player the Angels think he is, and Weaver adjusts to a league that features home run hitters, then Anaheim might remain competitive. But I just don't see the depth (besides the bullpen) to see the Angels making a significant run this season.

3. Rangers

Honestly, for me spots 2-4 in the AL West is a pick 'em. I don't think a whole lot separates the Angels, Rangers and Mariners from each other. That said, I'll give the Rangers the edge over Seattle because of the effort they've put into their pitching staff in the offseason. While they lost out on Beckett, they acquired or have developed a number of decent-looking arms to supplement their offensive output. Gone (for now) are the Chan Ho Parks of the roster. But, is it just me or does their offensive lineup not seem as intimidating as it did in years past? It must have something to do with a bizarre insistence by Showalter to hit Nevin cleanup. I suppose invariably Nevin's porcelain body will shatter and the lineup can get juggled, but it just seems out of whack right now. Expect the Rangers to continue putting on a show at home, but to fade as the season drags on and the Texas sun takes its toll. They need a dome.

4. Mariners

All hail King Felix! The baseball fan Rapture has arrived in the form of barely 20-year old brilliant Felix Hernandez. But beyond the baseball equivalency of LeBron James, the Mariner roster isn't as awful as you'd expect from a last-place team. The problem is that whether you look at the lineup, bullpen or rotation, there is a significant dropoff in talent after the first few best players. Seattle has a lot of payroll issues they need to work out and they need to start better apportioning who they hire to play baseball. Seattle could be a sleeper team if certain dominoes fall their way, but I don't really expect much beyond the baseball world tuning in every 5th day to praise thine King.


Awards:
AL MVP: Eric Chavez, although I'd love to see a DH-war between Hafner and Ortiz materialize. A-Rod is a perpetual contender as well, and Thome if the White Sox continue make me tear my hair out for another season.

AL Cy Young: Rich Harden. Johan Santana has an equal shot, and King Felix has such a swarm of buzz behind him he could easily finish in the top voting. If the Blue Jays make the playoffs, expect Roy Halladay in this mix.

Wild Card:
Yankees, mashing their way to a first round playoff exit. Toronto if Halladay makes 30+ starts.


The above predictions are my safer, less absurd forecast. Here's how I'd like the division races to turn out if crazy stuff shakes down in '06.

American "What the #$@% Just Happened!?" League Predictions:

East:
1. Boston
2. Toronto
3. New York Yankees
4. Tampa Bay
5. Baltimore

Central:
1. Cleveland
2. Minnesota
3. Detroit
4. Chicago White Sox
5. Kansas City

West:
1. Oakland
2. Seattle
3. Texas
4. Anaheim

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1 Comments:

Blogger sabesin2001 said...

no doubt about it, if the angels finish last in the AL west, i will indeed say "what the ____ just happened"

11:01 PM  

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