For the fun of it, here is how I see the American League shaping up this season, division by division:
American League East
1. New York Yankees - The line-up is eight positions deep with former Twin Doug Mientkiewicz the lone weak link. Being known primarily as a good defender at first base is like being crowned the prettiest girl at fat camp. The rotation is solid, if unspectacular, but more than up to the task given the run support they'll receive. Things could get even better if Roger Clemens decides to sign with the club or if Phillip Huges, the best pitching prospect in baseball, proves that Triple-A batters are no match for him and earns a trip to the show. The bullpen is a little thin behind Mariano Rivera, but the addition of Jose Valverde should help things. The Yankees don't have a lot of depth, so a major injury would expose them to an upset at the hands of their rivals in Boston, but for now they have to be considered the favorites.
2. Boston Red Sox - A healthy Coco Crisp, 130 games from J.D. Drew, and a nine-figure investment in Daisuke Matsuzaka should be enough to let the Red Sox keep pace with the Yankees, provided Roger Clemens avoids returning to the Bronx. The starting rotation has health concerns, and if JonathanPapelbon remains in the rotation, the bullpen is without an ace stopper. The Joel Pinero experiment has gone a bit rough so far this spring, Brendan Donnelly is getting long in the tooth, and Craig Hansen doesn't quite look ready for prime time so the ninth inning may prove to be the Red Sox achilles heel. As long as Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling can stay on the field for most of the season, the Sawks should stay very close to the Yankees all season.
3. Toronto Blue Jays - If A.J. Burnett and Roy Halladay can stay healthy, the Blue Jays will have the best one-two punch in the East. The addition of Frank Thomas to an already solid line-up would make the Jays favorites in half the divisions in baseball. However, spots three through five in the rotation are suspect, the Jays aren't the best fielding team, and they just don't stack up with the two juggernauts in their division.
4. Tampa Bay Devil Rays - The Rays have an amazing crop of young hitters in their system now reaching the majors. Right fielder Delmon Young and shortstop Ben Zobrist will make the opening day starting line-up as rookies and B.J. Upton, Elijah Dukes, and Evan Longoria will see significant playing time at some point this season. Japanese import Akinori Iwamura will provide Tampa Bay with a decent third baseman, and young hurlers Scott Kazmir and Jamie Shields make for a promising tandem atop the rotation. Unfortunately, after those two, the Rays don't have much pitching to speak of. 2004 first round pick Jeff Niemann may make a few starts towards the end of the season, but by then the Rays will have long stopped entertaining any dark horse playoff fantasies. Still, with so many talented young players, the Devil Rays should be one of the most exciting teams to watch in 2007.
5. Baltimore Orioles - The line up is comprised of veterans who are past their prime (with the exception of Nick Markakis) and the rotation of young pitchers who haven't yet come into their own. The Baltimore brass has assembled precious little talent in the farm system and seems content to tread water at the bottom of what is a very competitive division. It's going to be a miserable year for O's fans.
American League Central
1. Detroit Tigers - They've got the best pitching in baseball and a powerful (although on-base deficient) line up. Sooner or later manager Jim Leyland is going to come to his senses and anoint Joel Zumaya the team's closer, but other than the misuse of Todd Jones and the amount of playing time likely to go to Sean Casey, the Tigers don't have many problems. Jeremy Bonderman, no slouch in his own right, seems to be on everyone's list of breakout candidates for 2007 and may challenge Johan Santana for the Cy Young. The rest of the rotation is solid from front to back, and the Tigers have a nice collection of power arms in their pen. The offense is aging and will need to be rebuilt in the near future, but for now they're still playing out what's left of their prime.
2. Cleveland Indians - The Indians' offense is silly good. Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore are two of the more underrated offensive stars in baseball and Victor Martinez is one of the better offensive catchers. Couple them with solid free agent pick ups in the outfield and a promising young infield that includes shortstop JohnnyPeralta, third baseman Andy Marte, second baseman Josh Barfield, and first baseman Ryan Garko and you've got an offense that can keep pace with the Yankees and Red Sox. The Indians' pitching is what will keep them from winning the division, but they'll be in the hunt for the wild card.
3. Minnesota Twins - The Twins have three players who are the best in baseball at their respective positions: starter Johan Santana, catcher Joe Mauer, and closer Joe Nathan. Throw in Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter, and Michael Cuddyer and you have what is a pretty strong club. However, the division winning team of a year ago had Francisco Liriano and Brad Radke to help fill out their rotation. The Twins enter 2007 with big question marks in their starting staff outside of Santana and second year hurler Boof Bonser. Will Carlos Silva return to usefulness? Can Ramon Ortiz keep his home runs allowed under 40 if the Twins make the mistake of giving him a full season's worth of innings? Will the aquarium now short stocked in their whale exhibit come looking for Sidney Ponson ? The Twins have the pitching depth in the minors to make a run at a second consecutive division title and replace the veterans in their rotation that falter, but will all the pieces fall in place? Will they get enough production from Nick Punto at third base, Rondell White in left field, and Jason Kubel and Jeff Cirillo at designated hitter? Maybe, but the Indians and Tigers are going to be tough to beat. Still, there's definitely hope for the wild card, if not the division.
4. Chicago White Sox - The White Sox traded Freddie Garcia for some young pitching that won't help them this season and are largely treading water in the toughest division in baseball. Joe Crede and Jermaine Dye had career years and Jim Thome shook the injuries that plagued him in 2005 by moving to designated hitter. That all three players will maintain their level of play from a year ago is highly unlikely. Prospect Josh Fields might provide an offensive boost to the outfield, or take over at third base allowing the Sox to deal Crede for help elsewhere, but it won't be enough to avoid a fourth place finish.
5. Kansas City Royals - Alex Gordon is the real deal and will probably win Rookie of the Year in his second full professional season, completely skipping Triple-A in the process. The Royals have said that Gordon has not yet won the starting third base job, but no scout in baseball thinks he needs to spend any more time in the minors. Outside of Gordon, right fielder Mark Teahen and center fielder David DeJesus, the only player worth watching will be starting pitcher Zack Greinke. The former prospect left baseball for an extended period of time due to mental health issues and will try to reclaim his status as one of the best young control artists in the game this season. Pitching for the Royals isn't going to make things easy on his shrink, as the team will finish with the worst record in the junior circuit.
American League West
1. Los Angeles Angels - The starting rotation is very strong, with John Lackey, Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana, and Kelvim Escobar all able to generate high strike out totals. The Angels bullpen, anchored by Francisco Rodriguez, is again a strength, and the offense looks to be solid as well. Young players like second baseman Howie Kendrick and infield prospect Brandon Wood should make an impact this season and bolster a strong veteran core that includes right fielder Vladimir Guerrero, center fielder Gary Matthews Jr., and super-sub speedster Chone Figgins . The Angels would have to fight it out tooth and nail if they played in the East or Central, but in the West they'll run away with the division.
2. Oakland Athletics - The Athletics will be good, but they have too many uncertainties. Will starter Rich Harden stay healthy? Which version third baseman Eric Chavez will show up this season? Will Dan Johnson hit enough to hold down the first base job? Can left fielder Shannon Stewart become productive again this late in his career? How well can Mike Piazza replace what Frank Thomas gave the Athletics at designated hitter last season? Will shortstop Bobby Crosby ever deliver on his former prospect status? The Athletics have a great bullpen, and a decent rotation, but too much has to go right for this team to have a shot at the post-season. They'll post a respectable record but won't challenge the Angels.
3. Texas Rangers - The Rangers' infield is stacked. First baseman Mark Teixeira, second baseman Ian Kinsler, shortstop Michael Young, and third baseman Hank Blalock can all swing the stick. The challenge comes in getting production from their outfield. Left fielder Brad Wilkerson is coming off season-ending shoulder surgery, right fielder Nelson Cruz is an unproven rookie, and center fielder Kenny Lofton will be applying for his AARP card soon. All that before mentioning their lack of pitching outside of starters Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla and relievers Eric Gagne and Akinori Otsuka. Their offense will be fun to watch, but won't be enough to carry their pitching far beyond being a .500 ball club.
4. Seattle Mariners - Seattle pitching phenom Felix Hernandez should rebound from a slightly disappointing 2006 season, but his rise to stardom won't make up for the sins of what, outside of himself, is an overpaid and mediocre veteran rotation. The Mariners still have Ichiro setting the table on the offensive side of things, but the huge investments in third baseman Adrian Beltre and first baseman Richie Sexson have proven to be expensive mistakes. Couple them with average major league starters like left fielder Raul Ibanez, right fielder Jose Guillen, and catcher Kenji Jojima and you've got a pretty average offense, which, when coupled with bad pitching, will have the Mariners fighting it out with the Orioles and Devil Rays to avoid being the worst team in the American League outside of Kansas City.