This season has all the makings for one of those Yankees-Red Sox showdowns that never cease to provide historic October drama. It does get tiresome to hear this binary analysis of the AL East, but the attention the sports media gives to this rivalry isn’t about any kind of East Coast bias. The overall talent and payroll gap between the two juggernauts and the rest of the division is just too great for any other team to overcome. We’ll watch to see if the Rays’ studly collection of minor league talent translates to the Major League level and if Leo Mazzone can revitalize the Orioles’ pitching staff. The Blue Jays did add a resurgent Frank Thomas to a team that finished second last year, but Toronto, Baltimore, and Tampa Bay are all developing teams and will not be as competitive this season.
The Yankees, as always, have an incredibly deep lineup filled with on-base machines and sluggers, but their pitching rotation is so shallow that a Chien-Ming Wang hamstring pull has turned Carl Pavano, stuck on the Disabled List since the fall of Saddam Hussein, into their Opening Day starter. Boston’s lineup isn’t nearly as good as New York’s, but the Manny Ramirez-David Ortiz-J.D. Drew trio will give them one of the top five offenses in the American League. The biggest difference between the two teams is pitching. The Red Sox have one of the best staffs in baseball. Daisuke Matsuzaka has dazzled in spring training and could very well win a Cy Young. Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling, Matt Clement, and Tim Wakefield should rack up a ton of strikeouts for the Red Sox. The Yankees’ staff, as currently constructed, is far less dominant. It’s filled with soft-tossers like Wang, Pavano, Kei Igawa, and Andy Pettitte. None of these pitchers will dominate, but they will keep things close while the offense takes over. The possible additions of super-prospect Phil Hughes and Hall of Famer Roger Clemens to the Yanks rotation would turn them into a serious playoff contender. If everything goes as planned, the Yankees will be unstoppable in October and could possibly win their first World Series since 2000.
The AL Central has come a long way since three consecutive mediocre Minnesota teams were able to waltz to the playoffs from 2002-2004. The Central is now the American League’s deepest division as the Twins, White Sox, Tigers, and Indians all have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs. Hell, even the Royals may approach .500 with an influx of young talent. This depth hurts the chances that the Wild Card winner can emerge from the Central again. It also makes the Central the hardest division in all of baseball to predict. Chicago seems to be crossing its fingers and hoping for too many good breaks to come its way, whether it’s banking on rebound seasons from Mark Buehrle and Jose Contreras or slating injury prone Darin Erstad as its’ starting center fielder. The Tigers kept all the pieces of their World Series team together and added Gary Sheffield as their designated hitter. Detroit looks dangerous, but its’ pitching could suffer some regression based on the heavy workloads from last year’s playoff run and Kenny Rogers’ impending return to Earth. Minnesota has a core of six quality players in Johan Santana, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Joe Nathan, Torii Hunter, and Michael Cuddyer, but not much else. Matt Garza looks legitimate, but he is not ready to be their number two starter. Minnesota will miss Francisco Liriano and Brad Radke a lot more than they think.
Cleveland is the perennial dark horse candidate. Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta, and Victor Martinez resemble the homegrown core of up-the-middle position players the Yankees once had during the 1990’s. The Indians filled holes in the outfield and at second base this off-season by signing David Dellucci on the cheap and by trading for Josh Barfield to play second. The rotation is solid with Cliff Lee, C.C. Sabathia, Jake Westbrook and Paul Byrd in front of rookie Jeremy Sowers. Their bullpen remains a huge question mark, but signing mediocre closer Joe Borowski means the Indians won’t have to deal with the Fausto Carmona experience again (four losses and three blown saves in a seven-day stretch as closer last year). Regardless, I’m picking the Indians to win the AL Central. They’re the only team in the division that’s clearly on the upswing and they’re poised for big things.
The AL West is all about “ifs”. Most likely, this division is going to develop into a two-team race between the Atheletics and Angels, but there is a chance that the Rangers may sneak into the race. The A’s are bringing back most of last year’s division winning team except for the aforementioned Thomas and ace Barry Zito. Thomas’s 39 homeruns and 114 RBI are going to be missed because his replacement, Mike Piazza, hasn’t come close to those numbers since the 2002 season. The A’s are hoping for good health from shortstop Bobby Crosby and potential ace Rich Harden can balance out that drop in production. Harden is part of a group of young and potentially elite pitchers that have been plagued by injuries. If he can start 30 games, however, the A’s could win the division.
The Rangers have come close to addressing the pitching needs that seem to hold them back every year. Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla, and Brandon McCarthy are a solid trio of starters, but the Rangers’ rotation lacks depth. If Mark Teixeira returns to his 2005 form and closer Eric Gagne stays healthy, the Rangers could surprise a lot of people.
If the A’s and Rangers don’t win the division, it’s going to be the Angels. Starters John Lackey, Kelvim Escobar, Jared Weaver, and Ervin Santana have the substance to dominate and be durable for an entire season. They’ll also be plugging in top prospects, second baseman Howie Kendrick and third baseman Brandon Wood, up the middle. Wood and Kendrick will complement superstar Vladimir Guerrero in the best line-up the Angels have had since they won the World Series five years ago. The Angels are my pick to win the West because they have the best mix of upside and stability.