The Glass Eye: MLB Baseball Preview – American League, Part Two

Last week, we looked at the teams I do not expect to contend in the AL, plus the AL West contenders…this week we’ll look at the possible contenders in the other AL divisions, starting with the Central.

AL CENTRAL

Chicago White Sox (2nd in 2012)

Key Additions: 3B Jeff Keppinger

Key Losses: C AJ Pierzynski, P Brett Myers, 3B Kevin Youkilis

Key 2012 Stats: No team is more home run-dependent than the White Sox – they were eighth in batting average and seventh in on-base %, but third in home runs (211) which propelled them to fourth in runs scored. Amazing stat – the Sox only drew 461 walks, and Adam Dunn drew almost one-fourth of them (105) himself! The pitching staff was the epitome of average – they ranked between fifth and 10th in every major category.

Outlook: Every year I expect the Sox to slip and every year they seem to hang around in this division…but I think they are nearing the end of their window. Adam Dunn had a nice comeback year with those walks and 41 homers, but he still only hit .204. Paul Konerko started his decline last year, and while Alex Rios had a great bounce-back year, his career shows that you cannot count on consistency….and catcher is now a major liability with Pierzynski’s bat gone. In short, I think the offense is set to take a major step backward this season. The pitching should remain average, maybe slightly better if John Danks is healthy again – Danks, Sale, and a rejuvenated Jake Peavy make for a formidable top-3 – but the bullpen is average at best. The Sox could still contend if everything breaks right and their older hitters decline slowly, but I don’t think they will be all that close by the end of the season. 81-84 wins for Chicago in 2013.

Kansas City Royals (3rd in 2012)

Key Additions: SP James Shields, SP Ervin Santana, P Wade Davis

Key Losses: RP Jonathan Broxton

Key 2012 Stats: Every hitter with more than 300 at-bats was 28 or younger in 2012 – this is a VERY young offense, with lots of growth potential; Royals still need to find power – they were above average in terms of hitting and on-base abilities, but finished next to last with only 131 homers; the pitching staff ranked 10th or worse in all major stats except strikeouts.

Outlook: The Royals are THE rising team in the Central – they have a ton of young, talented bats, and they still have a very deep farm system. They didn’t score enough runs to compete in 2012, but with expected improvement from Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain I can easily see this team scoring 75-100 more runs in 2013. What they lacked was any kind of decent starting pitching, a flaw they think they have addressed by trading their top prospect for Shields and Davis. Shields is no ace, but he should provide 200+ above-average innings – something that has been absent in KC for many years. Davis has been a bust in the rotation so far but he was great in the bullpen last year, and still has potential to become a decent starter. Finally, Ervin Santana was quite good for the Angels in ’10 and ’11 before a poor ’12 campaign. The bullpen is chock-full of power arms, led by the lefty-righty combo of Tim Collins and Greg Holland (combined 184 K’s in 137 innings pitched). The front office appears to be in win-now mode, so expect some aggressive moves if needed during the season to further shore up the rotation. I see the offense making a big leap, the pitching making an incremental improvement, and the Royals hanging around the edges of contention for most of the summer before finishing with 83-87 wins.

Detroit Tigers (1st in 2012)

Key Additions: DH Victor Martinez (missed all of 2012), RF Torii Hunter

Key Losses: RP Jose Valverde, RF/DH Delmon Young

Key 2012 Stats: 3B Miguel Cabrera won the first Triple Crown since 1967; team recorded  .335 on-base%, second-best in the AL, but was only 10th in home runs; pitching staff was fourth in ERA, second in walks and strikeouts – led once again by ace Justin Verlander (238 innings, 2.64 ERA, 239 K’s)

Outlook: Detroit made an improbable run to the World Series in 2012, but they look to be even stronger in 2013 with the return of Victor Martinez and the addition of Torii Hunter. With those two potent bats (and addition-by-subtraction of out machine Delmon Young) the Tiger offense should remain one of the most potent in the AL.  On the mound, retaining midseason pickup Anibal Sanchez was key – with a front four of Verlander, Sanchez, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer, the Tigers boast the best rotation in the division by far. The weakness is in the bullpen – Jose Valverde imploded in October and was not welcomed back, which leaves Detroit full of question marks in the bullpen. Look for the Tiger brass to make some bold in-season moves to shore up the back end of the ‘pen. Aside from that, barring catastrophic injury to Cabrera or (worse) Verlander, the Tigers remain the odds-on favorite in the mediocre AL Central. Look for them to win 90-93 games.

AL EAST

Boston Red Sox (5th in 2012)

Key Additions: 1B/C Mike Napoli, SS Stephen Drew, OF Jonny Gomes, OF Shane Victorino, SP Ryan Dempster, RP Joel Hanrahan

Key Losses: SS Mike Aviles, 1B James Loney, OF Cody Ross

Key 2012 Stats: The once-powerful Sox offense took a nosedive in 2012, finishing fifth in runs, sixth in average, ninth in home runs and 10th in on-base%. The pitching was much worse, however – Boston finished 11th or 12th in every meaningful pitching stat last season, which is dreadful even allowing for hitter-friendly Fenway Park.

Outlook: While some forecast a bit of a dip for the Sox in 2012, no one saw the collapse coming – Boston finished fifth for the first time in 20 years, and more or less blew up the team’s offense between July and January. Napoli should have fun hammering balls off the Green Monster, and Drew is an upgrade at short (IF he stays healthy – always a question for him). Losing Ross hurts a bit, and David Ortiz will soon lose effectiveness, but on paper this should be a decent offense, if not up to prior Sox standards.

The pitching is quite another story – they are counting on huge rebound years from Lester, Buchholtz, and Lackey, as well as above-average work from aging Ryan Dempster. One or two of those things might happen – for all of them to work out together seems like a stretch. They also traded for Joel Hanrahan a year too late, and I would not be surprised to see the ‘Hammer’s control evaporate in Boston. I ALMOST listed Boston under the non-contenders, but they seriously underperformed in 2012, and they made enough positive moves to get the benefit of the doubt to start 2013. I don’t seriously think they can win this division, but the Yanks and Rays should be down a bit (we already know the Orioles should be down) so you never know. I’ll hedge and say 80-86 wins for Boston, but it really is all about their rotation.

New York Yankees (1st in 2012)

Key Additions: 3B Kevin Youkilis, DH Travis Hafner, RP David Aardsma, 1B Dan Johnson

Key Losses: OF Nick Swisher, C Russell Martin, RP Rafael Soriano, DH Raul Ibanez

Key 2012 Stats: Finished first in home runs, on-base %, slugging, and second in runs scored; pitching staff finished fifth in ERA but first in walks allowed, and second in strikeouts. Average batter age was 32.7 (highest in franchise history), and the average pitcher age was 30.3.

Outlook: Here’s all you need to know about the situation facing the 2013 Yankees: assuming Jeter is ready for Opening Day, the Yankees will have only one-third of their 2012 postseason lineup available to start the season. Their top three starters are 41, 38, and 32 and their closer is 43 and coming off a torn ACL. They let Russell Martin leave via free agency and have NO viable starters to replace him. A-Rod, Teixeira, and Granderson are each out for at least the first month of the season and while Granderson should come back fine, Tex’ wrist injury is unpredictable…and predicting ANYTHING from A-Rod at this point seems foolish. Hafner was a good, healthy DH…in 2006.

The Yankees are an INCREDIBLY old team, and they are already crippled by injury. They still have the talent to contend IF everyone makes it back, and they don’t suffer any more serious injuries…but I cannot see all of their aging pitchers retaining effectiveness this year, and the Yankees simply aren’t out-spending Father Time anymore. There’s too much talent here for a Boston-like collapse, but I definitely think the window is closing for New York, and 90+ wins would be close to a miracle. I’m saying 81-86 wins for the Yanks, and that’s out of respect more than anything.

Tampa Bay Rays (3rd in 2012)

Key Additions: 1B James Loney, 2B Kelly Johnson, SS Yunel Escobar, OF Wil Myers (AAA)

Key Losses: CF BJ Upton, SP James Shields, SP/RP Wade Davis, IF Jeff Keppinger

Key 2012 Stats: Dominant pitching staff finished first in ERA, hits, runs, home runs, and strikeouts in 2012; ace David Price won the AL Cy Young, but all five starters had ERAs of 4.03 or lower. Well-below average offense finished 11th in runs, 12th in batting average but eighth in home runs, second in steals, and first in walks.

Outlook: The cash-strapped Rays continue to succeed by making savvy trades, low-end free agent moves, and good draft decisions. Shields was a very good pitcher but about to get expensive, and the Rays have the best pitching depth in the league…so, they traded him for perhaps the best hitting prospect in the game in Wil Myers. Look for young Myers to be in Tampa by June, while the rays’ rotation will still be a strength even with Shields gone. The bullpen is also deep and laden with power arms, so while repeating a 3.18 team ERA is unlikely, it’s a good bet that the Rays will be one of the top two or three staffs in the AL.

Offensively they Rays have undergone a significant makeover – three new infield starters, while making Desmond Jennings the full-time centerfielder and moving versatile Ben Zobrist from 2B to RF. A full season from Evan Longoria would be a big boost – he missed over half of the ’12 season – but there’s also reason to expect improvement from Jennings, and Myers should be an upgrade as well when he arrives. The loss of Keppinger hurts more than you might expect, though…he was extremely versatile and hit .325 in over 400 at-bats.

The division is simply not the powerhouse it was even two years ago, and the Rays quietly made some very smart moves that should keep them in the 90+-win range yet again in 2012. I think they are definitely a cut above Boston and New York, and with moderate offensive improvement they might be the class of the division. I need to see what Myers brings before I go that far, so I’m picking the Rays to win 87-92 games and one of the wild-card slots.

Toronto Blue Jays (4th in 2012)

Key Additions: SS Jose Reyes, LF Melky Cabrera, SP R.A. Dickey, SP Mark Buehrle, SP, Josh Johnson, 2B Emilio Bonifacio

Key Losses: 2B Kelly Johnson, SS Yunel Escobar

Key 2012 Stats: Jays’ offense ranked fifth in home runs, seventh in runs scored but 11th in batting average and 13th in on-base%. The pitching was bad, ranking 10th or worse in every major category, including dead-last in home runs and walks allowed.

Outlook: No team in baseball improved as much on paper as the Blue Jays did this winter. They added three starting pitchers, and each is a significant upgrade. Dickey is the 2012 NL Cy Young winner, Johnson has Cy Young-caliber stuff when healthy, and Buehrle has pitched 200+ innings the past 12 seasons. Add in returning starter Brandon Morrow, who appeared to break out last year at age 27, and this rotation could rival the Rays for best in the division. The bullpen isn’t as deep or proven, but if the staff stays healthy (and that’s always a question with Johnson) this pen shouldn’t have to throw nearly as many innings this season. I think the pitching might allow 100 runs less in 2013 – they are that improved.

Offensively, Reyes is a huge upgrade at short and Bonifacio is a marginal upgrade at second, but the biggest upgrade will be having Jose Bautista healthy. The slugger missed almost half of 2012 yet still put up 27 home runs. I expect Edwin Encarnacion to regress a bit, but the improvement from young 3B Brett Lawrie should offset that. This won’t be the best offense in the league, but they should be a notch or two better than 2012.

I think it will be close between Toronto and Tampa, but I think while Tampa still has the better pitching, it’s a lot closer than it was, and the Blue Jay offense is far superior to the Tampa attack. Toronto made bold moves and I look for those moves to pay off with 92-96 wins and the AL East crown.

Next week, we take our first look at the National League.

Dave Glass can be reached at buggyracer@verizon.net.

 

 

 

 

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