So who will emerge as our benevolent American League overlords this season? Do we have a shot at pulling a fast one like last year or '03? How does the big fatboy bully league shape up in 2007?
Let's take a look at the races . . .
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1. New York Yankees
Make no mistake, this lineup is absolutley devastating up and down the order right up until you reach Doug Mientkiewicz in the nine hole (when the devastation comes to an abrupt halt). Jeter, Abreu, Rodriguez, Cano, and Matsui could bat anywhere in anyone's lineup. Looking for weaknesses turns up a couple things that are nothing new to the Bombers: poor team defense, particularly in the middle infield; Posada's reaching the Christological Age of catchers; sort of a weak bench, Melky Cabrera notwithstanding. But that order is crazy. They've got patient hitters; they've got aggressive hitters. They don't have much speed, but they have great baserunners. They won't score 1000 runs, but at times they'll make you think they can.
If haters like yours truly want a chance at feeling a little schadenfreude, it'll have to come from the pitching staff. The latest doom & gloom news is that either Carl Pavano or Jeff Karstens will pitch opening day, with various maladies affecting Chien-Ming Wang and the geriatric duo of Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina. Well, as panic-inducing situations go, this one's kind of a yawn. The big guys will be back in it soon enough, and might even see the nauseating return of Roger "Fathead" Clemens in June. Now, they do have kind of a crappy bullpen that Torre will no doubt abuse in his own inimitable way (Farnsworth and Proctor getting 99.9% of all non-Mariano innings until their rotator cuffs resign in protest). And the rotation is not as rock-solid as they'd like it to be. What does Pettitte still have in the tank and will he keep getting hurt? What does Igawa have to offer? And of course Pavano has to be considered a real wild card. But Yankee fans, before you jump on him too badly, listen closely: despite the bad press about him, I remember him as an anchor of that Marlins rotation in '03 when Beckett and A.J. Burnett were alternating turns on the DL, and he could easily do the same for the Yankees this season. Just give the guy another chance.
2. Boston Red Sox
First off, I want to take this opportunity to say a word about Curt Schilling's blog: it's fantastic, and Dan Shaughnessy can go fuck himself. I can't put it any better than Fire Joe Morgan does, so go see their take and we'll be all set. By the way, I was on my way to an NLDS game last year and saw Shaughnessy on the escalator down to the 7 train at Grand Central, and for some reason it was like someone threw a black cat right in my face. I wondered whether I should be panicking. Of course, we won, but boy, that was an iffy moment for the Gaupo.
On to this year's team, I don't know what the feeling in Red Sox Nation is, but personally I think they'll be pretty damn good, better than last season, in fact. Obviously a lot is on the shoulders of the injury-prone J.D. Drew, but if he's healthy there's a lot of runs to be scored, especially if the Sox take my suggestion and bat him second, behind Kevin Youkilis and ahead of Papi and Manny. And yes, I'm on the Dice-K bandwagon. This is how I see it going for him. His first start of the season (which will of course be hyped and overanalyzed beyond all reason) could go absolutely any which way: 7 shutout innings; run out in the second; something in between; whatever. From there, he gets off to a hot start, baffling hitters and showing his full array of pitches. Then, as we approach the All-Star break, the league catches up a bit and the scouting reports get filled in. Dice takes a few lumps. From there, it's kind of up to him but I see him (and this is of course just a hunch) responding and working it out, finishing strong down the stretch. In the end, he's looking it 15-16 wins and an ERA in the mid-3's. No Cy Young, but a better than solid first year.
As for the rest of the pitchers, the biggest news is in the closer role. Papelbon would be unquestionably be more valuable to the Sox as a starter than a closer, for the simple reason that starters are more valuable than closers, period. But with that said, it's a big plus for this team that the shaky closer situation has been settled in a way that has to be comforting to everyone involved. Even given a bit of a sophmore slump, Paps will be far less anxiety-inducing than experiments with Joel Pineiro or the ghost of Mike Timlin.
3. Toronto Blue Jays
Do you realize that the Jays finished a game ahead of the Red Sox last year? How did I forget about that? This is what happens when you declare your allegiance to one league. But that's remarkable because it seemed for a long time that the AL East belonged to two teams, one that would always win and one that would always come in second, close behind, with everyone else hoping only for a shot third place. Pitiful. I think much more could have been made of Toronto's accomplishment, and not only from a "How did the Red Sox blow that?" perspective (though that would be a legit interpretation too), but from the point of view of how one team from the East's bottom-dwellers gathered up the gumption and know-how, not to mention the Toonies-from-Heaven payroll, to make a run at runner-up. And more than that, how did they do it even while enduring 12 starts from Josh Towers?
Strange as it seems to herald the achievements of a team that finished 10 games out of first, it's illustrative of what the AL is about these days, and why although it is the fatboy league, it's hardly a commie league. No true pinko could stomach the stratification that's so much more evident over there (note: this is not a value judgment or an "NL is holier" argument; just reading the lay of the land). It gets to the reason the AL has asserted its dominance over the NL lately: nuclear proliferation. The Yankees and Red Sox launch their mutually assured destruction-style arms race, with payrolls skyrocketing, while other teams either wilt under their power (Royals, D-Rays), try to spend along with them as much as they can (White Sox, Blue Jays, Mariners, Rangers), or launch into some kind of hyper-creative, guerilla-warfare ish (Twins, A's) on the theory that if you can't join them, beat them some other way. So, no, it's not just the money. It's the money plus the ingenuity and derring-do that go along with trying to beat the money. That's why the AL is better: Cold War tactics plus capitalistic ingenuity and balls-out spending money to make money. It is the League of Reagan. Ugly, brutal, and headed towards some sort of Mad Max-meets-Terminator dystopian future.
Okay, so maybe that is a value judgment.
4. Baltimore Orioles
The conventional wisdom has it that Peter Angelos is killing his team and blaming it on the Nationals, presumably because that's what he really believes. As much as I'd love to launch into a counterintuitive, contrarian take on why Angelos isn't the culprit here, I can't. He is the culprit. He's blocked any number of recent trades and signings, stepping in and yanking the car keys from his various GMs over the last few years. They've successfully made one big free agent signing in Miguel Tejada, and benefitted from the emergence of Melvin Mora and Nick Markakis. This season they're once again saddled with too many borderline first-base/DH hacks (Millar, Gibbons, Huff). The only thing that might save them from again spinning their wheels hopelessly is that good young pitching they've got.
5. Tampa Bay Devil Rays
It's appropriate that I've saved the Rays to write about last. Long the red-headed stepchild of the league, they'll likely remain so for some time to come. This year is actually the brightest it's ever been for the Rays. For several seasons they were afraid to bring up any of their prospects and start their service time clocks ticking (the sooner they bring them up the sooner they watch them sign free agent contracts elsewhere), but now they don't really have a choice. Delmon Young will be out there, they'll settle on a position for B.J. Upton where he can do the least defensive harm, and apparently they got some starting pitcher from the Mets a couple years ago, but I don't remember anything about that. Do you? No? Good.
It doesn't really seem worthwhile to get into the particulars, but the Rays deserve respect too, so here we go: Cantu's a good hitter and should rebound; Ty Wigginton will regress to the mean a little; Baldelli, Crawford, Young, and Upton will be terrifically fun to watch for the handful of fans who actually watch Tampa's games; and all of their pitchers will get absolutely murdered by those diabolical AL East lineups, not to mention the diabolical Central and West lineups.
1. Detroit Tigers
An unproven leadoff hitter (Curtis Granderson) could be this lineup's only Achilles heal. He has to prove he can get on base enough to justify his place, although, not knowing much about Jim Leyland's feelings on these matters, I guess he could fail to get on base and still bat leadoff. Like all blatant steroid abusers (isn't blogging fun?) Gary Sheffield's performance could go any which way. Let's assume he'll still murder fastballs and possibly a few luckless third base coaches.
But Tiger pitching is the real story, led by Bonderman and Verlander. Todd Jones needs to not be the closer anymore, but that will probably take care of itself as the season progresses. By which I mean a forward-thinking Tiger fan could take out his knee caps, freeing up the big chair for Joel Zumaya.
2. Minnesota Twins
They've got the best starting pitcher in either league, the best closer in either league, good young hitters led by Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, and they seem to have shaken whatever demon voice was telling them to lean heavily on crusty veterans like Rondell White and Ruben Sierra. White is back, but in a less crucial role with guys like Jason Kubel around. Luis Castillo and Nick Punto get on base a respectable amount (.358 and .352 respectively) to handle the top of the order. Jason Bartlett (.367 last year) might end up in one of those spots, too. Mauer-Cuddyer-Morneau need no introduction in the heart of the order, to the tune of a combined 74 home runs and 323 RBI.
The big question for the Twins is the rotation behind Johan Santana. It's just never a good thing when Sidney Ponson is involved, especially given the lineups of the Indians and Tigers. How the rotation question will be answered depends on Matt Garza and Boof Bonser, who have to step up and make sure Ponson and Ramon Ortiz's services will not be needed for long.
3. Cleveland Indians
According to Sports Illustrated, all of Jhonny Peralta's offensive and defensive problems last year were attributable to his poor eyesight and discomfort with contact lenses. He had offseason laser surgery to correct that problem, and a lot of Cleveland's hopes depend on it. He's paired with Josh Barfield, a much better defensive second baseman than they had last season, so the infield defense could be in for a huge improvement, especially when you consider Andy Marte replacing Aaron Boone at third.
Cleveland is playing around with a lot of platoons, which is a little troubling. Casey Blake is involved in seemingly all of them, along with Trot Nixon in right, Ryan Garko and Victor Martinez at first, and David Delucci in left. By all rights that first-base job should be Garko's, with Nixon and Blake starting in the outfield corners and Delucci coming off the bench. See, Cleveland, was that so hard?
4. Chicago White Sox
The AL Central is probably the strongest division in baseball, and one good team is going to have to finish fourth. So I'm not killing the White Sox when I say it will probably be them. I basically like their pitching, and of course they're only a year removed from winning it all, but the lineup's just got too much Scott Podsednik, too much Juan Uribe, and definitely way too much Darin Erstad to make me think they can crack the top three here, even with the power bats of Thome and Konerko. I don't see Jermaine Dye repeating his MVP-caliber year either, though he'll still be good.
5. Kansas City Royals
I don't know how to even begin talking about the Gil Meche contract, except to say that there should be a provision for the League to step in and block a deal like that in extreme circumstances. Call it the "Darren Dreifort Clause."
But the Royals are definitely finishing in last place, and they may actually be the first team in history to have been mathmatically eliminated in spring training, so let's just focus on the positive here. Alex Gordon and Mark Teahen are going to be really good hitters, and probably this year, and miraculously the Royals don't have ridiculous, useless veterans blocking their way. And ridiculous, useless veterans Mark Grudzielanek, Reggie Sanders, and Jason LaRue don't seem to be blocking the way of any prospects, so that's fine.
That's all I got, guys. Sorry.
1. Oakland A's
I should probably pick the big-money, Vlad-powered Angels, but I can't. More on them in a second, but as far as Oakland goes, their own version of Generation K looks awesome, and unlike the Mets version did, these guys actually stay healthy and productive. Rich Harden will be the Cy Young runner-up, Haren will shine as well, Huston Street will have a decent bounceback season, and the back of the rotation will be pretty much as decent as it needs to be. On the other side of the ball our old buddy Mike Piazza will settle comfortably into the DH role and hit 25 home runs. As for Milton Bradley: remember Milton, you too can be a winner at the game of Life. Just try not to take out the whole first row behind the dugout in Anaheim or something.
2. Los Angeles Angels
I just think the Sarge, Jr. deal is going to kill them. Even before the revelations came out about the HGH deliveries that looked like a foolish signing. Couple that with and aging Garrett Anderson limping around in left and I don't see the lineup coming together. Now, Casey Kotchman and Howie Kendrick could take over and make me look foolish, and John Lackey is a sleeper Cy Young candidate. Like I said, it's hard not to pick them to win the division, but I'm going with my gut here.
3. Texas Rangers
One circus leaves town and another arrives. With Matthews out of the picture, probably mercifully for the Rangers, they bring in Sammy Sosa to compete for a comeback bid. I honestly don't see Sammy amounting to much, certainly he won't be this season's Frank Thomas, but the team has so little invested in him it will hardly matter. What will matter is how weak the rest of the outfield is (Kenny Lofton?) and the shaky rotation (perhaps literally, in Vincente Padilla's case).
4. Seattle Mariners
Here are Seattle's win totals since 2000:
2000: 91It can happen just like that, kids. One season you're rolling off wins they was nothin' and the next you're in the basement, wondering what the hell just happened. Not trying to be gloomy, Mets fans, I'm just saying you gotta take a good look around and appreciate what you've got. Payrolls guarantee nothing.
Any good news for the M's? Sure. They've got a good closer, for whatever that's worth. They've got all that Japanese marketing scratch pouring in. More importantly, King Felix is still young, only turning 21 early next month, and early disappointments should leave him both hungier and wiser. But Jeff Weaver, Miguel Batista, and Horacio Ramirez are in line to get murdered in the AL. Also, Rey Ordonez just made their opening day roster. Not Rey Ordoňez, Jr., not some other dude who happens to be named Rey Ordoňez: regular old Rey Ordoňez.
It's going to take the Mariners a while to dig themselves out of the mess they've made for themselves, but if the Mets can look at the Mariners as a cautionary tale (too close to the sun, wings of wax, etc.) then the Mariners can look back at the Mets as a reason for hope. You can ditch bad contracts if you're creative. Draft well, nurture your prospects, and then, when the time is just right, start throwing that cash around. Just make sure it's on the right guys next time, and not Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre.
* * *EAST: Yankees
WILD CARD: Red Sox
MVP: Grady Sizemore
Cy Young: Johan Santana
Rookie: Daisuke Matsuzaka
I don't make playoff predictions. This ain't the NBA: anything can happen.