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For the Boston Red Sox, the 2011 season was an homage to all of the disappointing Red Sox teams of the past. The Sox had a potent offense, mediocre pitching staff and even a historic collapse to cap it all off. The baseball season is an epic journey and usually teams with the most talent, depth and fewest question marks are playing in October.
For most of the last decade, the playoffs have been a crapshoot and the champion has been decided by the teams with the hot pitchers and the streaky hitters. Lately, those players haven’t been all-stars, but solid everyday starters and role players. David Freese, 28 years of age, was the hero of last year’s playoffs and World Series. Freese, a journeyman minor leaguer for much of his career, hit .397 with 5 home runs and 21 RBI as the St. Louis Cardinals captured the 2011 World Series Championship.
For the 2012 season, Major league Baseball has added an extra wild card in each league and created a one-game “wildcard” playoff round. Bud Selig, who I think is the worst Commissioner of the four major sports, is hoping to re-create that exciting buzz of the last day of last season by adding this gimmick. While I do like that it makes the divisions matter once again, I shiver at the possibility that a team loses a one-game playoff to a team they had ten more wins than during the regular season. Maybe Selig should have tackled the biggest problems facing the game today like, length of games, failure to embrace technology, leagues with two different rules (UNFATHOMABLE FOR A PROFESSIONAL SPORT), and a World Series that ends right before Halloween. Nope, Bud’s going gimmick first, we’ll get to fixing America’s past time later.
So, the good news for Red Sox fans is that the extra wild card should keep them in the hunt for most of the season. On paper, the Red Sox look to be the least talented of the six power teams in the American League. They have an offense that can compete with anyone in baseball, but it’s all about the pitching, and they don’t have enough.
Let’s take a deeper look at my power rankings and what I think each team has going for themselves to start the season. Today, we’ll look at the top three teams in the American League:
After a relatively uneventful offseason, the Yankees made themselves the favorites with one day of deals. First, they traded one of the top hitting prospects in all of baseball, Jesus Montero, to the Seattle Mariners for 23 year old All-Star starting pitcher Michael Pineda. Pineda is considered by many to be one of the top young arms in the game. In his rookie season with the Mariners, he was a 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA and 173 Strikeouts in 171 innings.
Pineda was dominant in the first half of the year, finishing with an 8-6 record and a 3.03 ERA. He did seem to tire in the second half and that reflected in his numbers as he went just 1-4 with a 5.12 ERA. Pineda also injured his shoulder in Spring Training and will begin the season on the disabled list. So, whether he can return to All-Star form in a bigger market bears watching. If he does, the Yankees have another power arm to pair with C.C. Sabathia and Ivan Nova.
The Yankees also acquired free agent pitcher Hiroki Kuroda on a one-year, $10 million deal. This deal came a little out of the blue as Kuroda had shown little interest in leaving the Los Angeles Dodgers or the National League. But, with the Dodgers previous ownership strapped for cash, they were content to let Kuroda walk.
The track record on Japanese pitchers in the American League as has been spotty at best. Hideki Irabu, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideo Nomo never rose to elite status but if Kuroda can simply give the Yankees what he gave the Dodgers the last three years, which was at least 170 innings pitched and a sub-4 ERA, then the Yankees will have one of the league’s top rotations. Kuroda also will be a constant reminder to the Red Sox that THEY should have been more aggressive in acquiring his services.
The Yankees have the rest of the components for a championship run in place. They have a #1 starter who is in the 18-20 win range every season. The importance of an ace can never be understated. All you have to do is look back at past seasons and see what Curt Schilling did in 2004, Josh Beckett in 2007, Sabathia himself in 2009 and even Justin Verlander last season. The rest of the rotation fills out nicely with Ivan Nova hoping to pick up where he left off in 2011 (16-4) and the always dependable Freddie Garcia at the number five.
The bullpen is where the Yankees made terrific strides last season. They still have Mo Rivera, apparently for his last season, but he’s still dominant as the closer. They also have power arms in middle relief and setup roles. Dave Robertson, Rafael Soriano and Boone Logan anchor a pen that is one of the league’s best.
Finally, offense shouldn’t be a problem for the Yankees. While Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter are getting up there in years, they are still productive players. Mark Texeira should respond from what was a down year for him in 2011 and they still have Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson to anchor a lineup that was 2nd in the American League in Runs scored and OPS. The only thing that might prevent this team from playing in October is age and injuries; but the Yankees have some very good major league ready talent in the minors ready to fill in when necessary.
Prediction: 1st in the American League East. They will lose in the ALCS to eventual World Series Champion Angels.
The Los Angeles Angels made the two biggest moves of the offseason. After years of caution in regards to the signing of high priced free agents, Angels Owner Artie Moreno saw an opportunity to take over the baseball market in Los Angeles from the Dodgers. He started by signing the greatest hitter of his generation, Albert Pujols, to a 10-year, $254 million contract.
Moreno also ponied up another $78 million for Texas Rangers free agent starter C.J. Wilson. Wilson was the Rangers ace in 2011 but struggled mightily in the playoffs. The Rangers decided he wasn’t worth being paid as a number one starter. The Angels did, though in reality he will be the fourth starter in the rotation behind Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana. Let’s also not forget that the Angels play in a pitcher-friendly stadium, where even John Lackey had success. In 2011, the Angels were first in team ERA and third in quality starts. Adding Wilson should leap frog them ahead of the Rangers if they can score enough runs.
Offensively Pujols obvious helps, but in reality while the Angels may have the best rotation in baseball, their offense is average and not on par with the Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers and Rangers. Last season, the Angels were 10th in runs and 9th in OPS in the American League. Pujols alone will push them up to middle of the pack, and Kendrys Morales returning to the lineup will help. This team will not run away with the AL West, but if they can avoid the play-in game they have a strong chance of winning the pennant. Their bullpen is not great, but last season they were 12th out of 14th in bullpen innings pitched. The Angels also are sure to be active at the deadline if they need to add another bullpen arm or two.
Prediction: 1st in the AL West and World Series Champion over the Philadelphia Phillies
The Texas Rangers were a misjudged fly ball away from their first World Series title in team history last season. For Red Sox fans who remembered 1986, it was a little bit of déjà vu. After a series of down years, team GM/President Nolan Ryan seems to have the Rangers on the right program. The last two years they have won the American League Pennant but failed to bring home the title despite being favorites in both series. In 2010, the Rangers lost their best pitcher, Cliff Lee, to the Phillies via free agency. Last year they lost their best pitcher, C.J. Wilson, to the Angels via free agency.
No problemo, the Rangers just add an arm here, make a rotation change there and tweak the bullpen a little. They are sliding Colby Lewis (14-10, 4.40 ERA, 200 IP) slides into the #1 spot in the rotation and Natali Feliz, the former closer will move into the rotation. The Rangers signed closer Joe Nathan in free agency hoping he can return to pre-Tommy John form. The Rangers also will have one of the strongest bullpens in the league. Mike Adams, acquired at the trade deadline from the Padres, was one of the best setup men in baseball last season. Alexi Ogando won 13 games as a starter last year. This year he will start in the pen after the Rangers ponied up a posting fee of $52 million for Yu Darvish from the Japanese league. Darvish will try to prove he is not the second coming of Daisuke Matsuzaka. Darvish has flown somewhat under the radar this spring and will have less pressure in the Texas market. Ogando’s move gives the Rangers tremendous flexibility and insurance in case Feliz or Darvish are unable to make the transition to American League starters. In 2011, the Rangers were 5th in ERA, tied for 1st in quality starts and 10th in bullpen innings pitched.
Offensively, the Texas Rangers continued to swing the lumber, especially at the Ballpark in Arlington, where they had an .860 OPS. The Rangers were 3rd in runs and 2nd in OPS in the American League in 2011. They are returning essentially the same lineup and are hopeful that Adrian Beltre and Josh Hamilton who both missed significant time last season can remain healthy. The Rangers are probably the most balanced team behind the Red Sox in the American League. They lack a stud #1 starter like the Tigers, Rays, Yankees, Angels and even Red Sox possess. However, if Matt Harrison, who was 14-9 with a 3.39 ERA in 2011, can continue his progression to an elite starter, they could capture their third straight American League Pennant.
Prediction: 2nd Place AL West, and a loss in the play-in game to Tampa Bay (more to come on them soon).
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the next three teams in the American League, and who will likely miss the playoffs this October.