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AL Futures Preview

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After the NL preview earlier in the week, it's time for a look at the AL.

AL EAST: BEST BET...Apparently, last year's surprise playoff visit by the Baltimore Orioles (78 1/2) is being discounted by many experts, as the Birds aren't even being projected to finish above .500. Which, to an extent, we understand; skipper Buck Showalter seemed to be doing it with mirrors last term, as the O's were minus in run differential for most of the season (unheard of for a playoff entrant), were a hard-to-repeat 29-9 in one-run games, and had the benefit of the Red Sox collapse to help them move up in the AL East. Granted, the division should be stronger this season with the Blue Jays now a legit contender again and with the Bosox not likely to disappear as they did a year ago, but the Birds were built on pitching last season, and nothing suggests things are going to be any worse in that regard, especially with aces-in-waiting Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman ready to break into the rotation soon. The deep and versatile bullpen, led by closer Jim Johnson and set-up man Pedro Strop, came in very handy in all of those close decisions a year ago, and Baltimore remains very strong up the middle, with C Matt Wieters, SS J.J. Hardy and a now-healthy 2B Brian Roberts (who is also a prototypical leadoff hitter if he can stay in the lineup), and CF Adam Jones (signed to a big-bucks extension). Meanwhile, sources expect 3B Manny Machado to really blossom now that he will have a full season in the lineup, and RF Nick Markakis looks like he will avoid the DL after being bothered by some neck issues early this March in Sarasota. And while spring training results don't mean anything, it is hardly a negative that the O's were comfy winners of the Grapefruit League. Not sure if the Birds get back to the playoffs, but we'd be very surprised if they don't at least get to .500; it's a definite "over" for us at Camden Yards.

OTHERS: It didn't take Nostradamus to figure out that the abrasive Bobby Valentine was going to be a poor fit in the Boston Red Sox (82 1/2) dugout last season, although even Yankees fans began to feel bad for the Bosox by September when the Beantown bunch exceeded 90 losses. Valentine, who miraculously stayed on the bench until the bitter end despite alienating almost the entire clubhouse, was humanely relieved of his duties in the offseason and replaced by Blue Jays manager John Farrell, who might wish he had stayed in Toronto. But Valentine was hardly the only reason for the Boston collapse a year ago, as the meltdown that began in September 2011 and cost Terry Francona his job continued unabated in 2012. GM Ben Cherington at least didn't sit on his hands in the offseason, turning over one-third of the roster by adding a collection of serviceable free agents who, in theory, will keep Boston in contention until a new wave of prospects is ready to deliver in 2015 or 2016. But Cherington did not add much to what was a poor rotation last year, signing only Ryan Dempster from the FA ranks, with the Bosox hoping that Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz (who both shined this spring in Fort Myers) regain their form from a few years ago. We'll see. And in a perfect world, David Ortiz would be at DH and Stephen Drew at SS to open the season; but in the real world, both open the season on the DL (with Ortiz' return date from heel problems unknown), while Farrell (who's not much warmer and fuzzier than Valentine) is counting a lot on journeymen like vet OFs Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes, and raw rookie LF Jackie Bradley, Jr., in the everyday lineup. Cherington might disagree, but it looks like another "under" at Fenway Park.

Another spring, another chance for prognosticators to overlook the Tampa Bay Rays (87 1/2). To us, among the more interesting developments of the offseason was not that star 3B Evan Longoria signed a long-term (and under market value) extension to stay at The Trop, but the reason why he did it; Longoria simply likes playing for manager Joe Maddon, and hinted that many who have left the organization in recent years (and we're assuming that would include Carl Crawford) have missed the camaraderie and esprit de corps that Maddon has instilled within the troops. And, speaking of Longoria, the fact that the Rays still won 90 games last year despite Longoria missing most of the season with a torn hamstring speaks volumes about the skipper's ability to mix and match. As usual, Tampa Bay lost its share of stars in the offseason (this year it was P James Shields, OF B.J. Upton, and 1B Carlos Pena...Pena for the second time), but shrewd additions such as SS Yunel Escobar, 1B James Loney, versatile 1B-2B-OF Kelly Johnson, and OF Wil Myers, the jewel of the Shields trade with Kansas City, figure to fill in seamlessly. Let's also remember that AL Cy Young winner David Price anchors what should still be a functional staff, although there is a bit of concern that closer Fernando Rodney (who was lights-out in 2012) might have been a bit overworked in the World Baseball Classic. Still, it was a quiet and confident March in Port Charlotte, as the Rays were merely trying to stay healthy and answer a couple of roster questions at the back of the rotation and in reserve roles. By us, there's no reason the Rays aren't right around last year's 90 wins and again in the race for a playoff spot; it looks like another "over" in St. Pete.

Introducing the AL's team du jour; the Toronto Blue Jays (88 1/2), who are finally giving long-suffering Maple Leafs fans something to look forward to after the Jays have missed the playoffs every year since Joe Carter took Mitch Williams deep in Game Six of the 1993 World Series. Reason for the optimism is obvious; young Toronto GM Alex Anthopolous (who wasn't even born when the Blue Jays debuted as an expansion team in 1977 with the likes of John Mayberry and Ernie Whitt in the fold) effectively remade the team in the offseason, culling the best of the Marlins in the latest Miami fire sale, while also heisting NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets and signing OF Melky Cabrera, who was leading NL batters in hitting last summer (.346) with the Giants before his substance-related suspension last August. Dickey, along with ex-Marlins Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, anchor a new-look rotation and make Ricky Romero's spring struggles in Dunedin much easier to digest. Moreover, having both Casey Janssen and Sergio Santos back and apparently healthy gives the Blue Jays two closers. And with Cabrera and new SS Jose Reyes (maybe the best leadoff hitter in the game) now in the fold, no longer is it up to Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion to carry the offense. So what don't we like? Maybe it's too many new faces, including manager John Gibbons, who reprises his role from 2004-08, when the Jays held their own but never seriously contended. Call us skeptical, but we'd rather just sit back and watch what transpires north of the border; it's a no call at Rogers Centre.

Okay, when was the last time the New York Yankees (84 1/2) were considered an afterthought in the AL East? The early '70s, perhaps, when Roy White and Horace Clarke anchored the lineup and Fritz Peterson and Stan Bahnsen were the workhorses of the pitching staff? And after an unusually quiet offseason, the Yanks are now looking at opening the season with Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter all on the DL; indeed, New York will open with a DL payroll of more than $80 million, and none of them could be back until June! GM Brian Cashman also allowed Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez, Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez to depart as FAs this past winter, leaving the team desperate for sluggers. Not much of a Bronx Bombers look these days, as skipper Joe Girardi will instead be trying to manufacture runs with Ichiro, now-healthy CF Brett Gardner, and Jeter's SS replacement Eduardo Nunez all turned loose on the basepaths. Aging FA additions such as 3B Kevin Youkilis and DH Travis Hafner, plus recently added OF Vernon Wells (from the Angels, whom Cashman convinced to pick up most of his remaining $40 mill-plus salary the next two years) will try to protect 2B Robinson Cano in the battng order as much as possible, but cannot be counted upon to carry much of a load at this stage of their careers. Meanwhile, the staff might be functional, but there are no potential dominators beyond CC Sabathia (and even he has lost a bit of velocity from his fastball), and closer Mariano Rivera is off a serious surgery on a torn ACL as he completes a retirement lap this summer. Like most Yanks fans, we'll be monitoring the DL to find out when (and if) the team might be at full strength, which makes projections very tricky; though our arrow is pointing down, we're a bit reluctant to do anything except take a pass in the Bronx.

AL CENTRAL: BEST BET...We long ago stopped classifying Chicago White Sox (81 1/2) GM Kenny Williams as a genius, so we don't think his offseason move to baseball operations role and Rick Hahn assuming Williams' old job is an earth-shaking development on the South Side. But it might as well have been Williams pushing the personnel buttons in the offseason as Hahn mostly stood pat, believing (as did Williams) that pitching alone would be enough carry the Chisox back to the playoffs. The problem with that mindset is that the same arms didn't get the Pale Hose to the postseason in 2012 while the offense would disappear completely at times a year ago. So why no upgrades to the lineup other than adding 3B Jeff Keppinger from the Rays? Manager Robin Ventura kept fiddling with his batting order throughout March in Glendale, trying to find a proper place for DH Adam Dunn (one of only two lefties in the batting order) and wondering if he could goose some sort of production from the bottom of the order, where 2B Gordon Beckham is running out of time to deliver. True, the staff Hahn and Williams seem to love (led by fireballing lefty Chris Sale) looks more than serviceable, but a couple of key components (lefty starter John Danks and key bullpen set-up man Jesse Crain) are both going to open the season on the DL. With the AL Central looking no worse than it did a year ago, and upgrades to the batting order hard to discern, we think the Chisox struggle to break .500. It's an "under" at The Cell.

OTHERS: The AL version of the Pittsburgh Pirates over the past few seasons has been the Cleveland Indians (78 1/2), who have teased as a contender until the All-Star break before (like the Bucs) falling flat on their faces in the stretch drive. Not apparently content, as is Bucs GM Neil Huntington, to sit around with basically the same team that faded, Cleveland GM Chris Antonetti remade the look of the team in the offseason, starting in the dugout with new skipper Terry Francona, the only manager who has won a World Series for the Red Sox in the last century (how's that for some credentials?). The retrofit continued into the FA market, where the likes of OFs Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, 3B-1B Mark Reynolds, and P Brett Myers were added, and in trades, with OF Drew Stubbs imported from Cincinnati. Those additions should improve team speed and defense, areas that Francona insisted needed upgrading before he agreed to take the managerial challenge. Admittedly, there are some questions with the pitching staff, where top-of-the-rotation starters Justin Masterson & Ubaldo Jimenez combined to lose 32 games last season. But Francona expects both to improve, and Myers (who moves back into the rotation from his closer's role of the past two seasons) should at least prove an innings eater, while after a brief scare in Goodyear, closer Chris Perez is available to open the season. Meanwhile, there is plenty of versatility in a batting order that can go with seven left-handed hitters if needed. Lots of room for another contender to emerge beyond the Tigers in the Central, and if Francona's staff holds together, it could be the Tribe. Why not; look "over" by the shores of Lake Erie.

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The Kansas City Royals (78 1/2) have not sniffed a playoff game since Bret Saberhagen retired the final Cardinal in the 1985 World Series. They've dropped 90 or more games in eight of the past nine years, including three 100-loss seasons. Throw out the 2003 campaign in which they finished 83-79, and the Royals would be close on the heels of the Pittsburgh Pirates for longest current string of losing years; other than 2003, KC hasn't finished above .500 in a full season since 1993, although the Royals were 64-51 in the work-stoppage-shortened 1994. GM Dayton Moore acted like he was tired of waiting in the offseason, willing to deal some of the organization's top prospects (including OF Wil Myers) to the Rays in order to get James Shields and Wade Davis to, along with another winter trade acquisition, ex-Angel Ervin Santana, anchor what could have charitably been called a shaky pitching rotation the last few years. Not to mention signing Jeremy Guthrie to a $25 million, 3-year deal based upon a handful of decent outings after being acquired from Colorado at the trade deadline in late July. Santana, however, posted a career-worst 5.16 ERA last season and allowed an AL-high 39 homers, Davis mostly pitched out of the bullpen last season with Tampa Bay, and Guthrie's ERA was 6.35 before the trade. Not exactly the 1971 Orioles staff of four 20-game winners. We're hardly convinced about the batting order, either, with free swingers like RF Jeff Francoeur, 3B Mike Moustakas, and 1B Eric Hosmer (who endured a dismal sophomore slump) all lacking discipline at the plate, hardly suggesting the team is going to improve much on the 672 runs scored last season, ranking near the bottom of the AL. While the BBQ remains indescribably good in KC, and Kaufmann Stadium is still one of the underrated jewels in the bigs, we suspect the wait for a winner lasts at least another year; go "under" off of the Blue Ridge Cutoff on I-70.

What a difference a few years can make. Once perennial playoff contenders, the Minnesota Twins (68 1/2) have quickly descended into irrelevance, dropping out of sight the last two seasons when losing nearly 200 games (195 to be exact) in the franchise's worst back-to-back campaigns since 1981-82, which includes the final season at the long-ago Met in Bloomington. And we doubt there will be any playoff tickets printed at Target Field this October, either, especially after the Twins seemed to be clearing the decks for many of their youngsters to assume more featured roles in 2013, dealing away capable CFs Ben Revere (to the Phils) and Denard Span (to the Nats) in the offseason in order to bolster the staff with some new arms. One of those, bespectacled ex-Phil Vance Worley, might be the opening day starter for skipper Ron Gardenhire, whose patience has surely been tested the past two seasons. Expect a lot of moving parts on a pitching staff that at the outset will feature Worley and the much-traveled Kevin Correia at the top of the rotation. The lineup, however, might not be too bad, especially with 1B Justin Morneau apparently beyond the concussion symptoms that dogged him the past two seasons, C Joe Mauer (knock on wood) healthy, and OF Josh Willingham (off a 35-homer uprising a year ago) comprising a very solid middle of the order, and the left side of the infield (youngsters 3B Travis Plouffe & SS Pedro Florimon) flashing some real upside. The Twins won't contend, but they can creep into the low-to-mid 70s on the win side; go "over" in Minneapolis.

While the rest of the division has imploded around them the past two seasons, the Detroit Tigers (92 1/2) have almost been able to win the Central by default, although it's worth noting that Jim Leyland's team only won 88 games last year and wasn't able to shake the White Sox until the last week in September. We share some of Leyland's concerns, especially regarding a bullpen that had to discard closer Jose Valverde after his late-season fade became a full-blown meltdown in the postseason, and now is counting upon rookie Bruce Rondon to assume Valverde's old role. Leyland is also said to be very uncomfy with his options in long relief, tempering some of the enthusiasm surrounding perhaps the AL's best starting rotation featuring Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, and Anibal Sanchez, the latter being mostly superb after being added at the trade deadline from the Marlins. The return of C Victor Martinez from injury is a plus, but we also wonder if 3B Miguel Cabrera can come close to the Triple Crown numbers he posted last season, and we have to speculate how much newly-added RF Torii Hunter has left in his tank. GM Dave Dombrowkski is also said to be looking for a right-handed hitting left fielder should one appear on the market in the first month of the season. The Tigers won the Central without reaching 90 wins last season and could do so again this term; we're going "under" at Comerica Park while looking forward to our next visit, snapping a picture next to the Ernie Harwell statue, and chomping on a few coneys from the Leo's Hot Dog Restaurant behind home plate.

AL WEST: BEST BET... The welcome mat has been rolled out in the AL for the Houston Astros (59 1/2), who unfortunately make a switch to perhaps the strongest division in the bigs. The "Astronomicals" (as the inimitable Reds play-by-play man Marty Brennaman refers to them) and their fans are not expecting much after enduring last season's 107-loss disaster; there's more disappointment in Houston about longtime color man Jim Deshaies leaving his spot in the broadcast booth alongside the capable Bill Brown for a similar job with the Cubs, while vet radio play-by-play man Milo Hamilton has also retired. But Deshaies and Milo are being spared the likely carnage this season. And until minor league prospects such as Carlos Correa, Jonathan Singleton and George Springer arrive, the Astros are content to rely on the lowest payroll in MLB (an estimated $25 million) and pluck castoffs such as LHP Erik Bedard and SS Ronny Cedeno off the scrap heap. The target date for a competitive product is 2015; with Bud Norris and his 4.65 ERA ranking as the ace of the staff, you get the idea what 2013 might look like in Houston. We do, however, approve of the new "retro-style" (circa 1960s) unis and logo with the heavy splash of orange, although we would have liked the same sort of "Astros" script that made its debut when the old Astrodome opened in 1965, and new skipper Bo Porter seems a hoot. At least new owner Jim Crane isn't making the team wear cowboy hats on the road, as Judge Roy Hofheinz did when the team was known as the Colt .45s in the early '60s. It's a definite "under" at Minute Maid Park.

OTHERS: Were the Oakland Athletics (84 1/2) a fluke last season when they stormed down the stretch to nail the Rangers at the wire to win the West? Whatever they were, it was one of the most refreshing developments we have seen in a long time, as an unheralded and (relatively) low-payroll team took the AL by storm and played with the sort of joie de vivre rarely seen in pro sports. That kind of chemistry is often terribly overlooked by stat geeks and other baseball followers who too often forget that the sport is indeed a team game. And the follow-up to perhaps GM Billy Beane's greatest masterpiece might not be so bad, especially if manager Bob Melvin is again able push all the right buttons. By A's standards, offseason personnel losses were manageable, and Oakland still has the ability to use numerous players at various positions, mixing and matching combos at will. The roster looks potentially even better than last year, with the additions of OF Chris Young (via Arizona) and SS Jed Lowrie (from Houston), while power-packed Cuban OF Yoenis Cespedes could post frightening numbers if healthy for an entire season. Like 2012, however, the real key for Oakland will be pitching, which remains a team strength. With Brett Anderson returning very well last August from Tommy John surgery and with greater experience for Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, and A.J. Griffin (all rookies last year), the A's rightfully believe they have one of the best rotations in the league, and the bullpen looks just as solid, with plenty of depth behind closer Grant Balfour. And if needed, Beane has a history of pulling rabbits out of his hat at the trade deadline. Looks like another "over" in the East Bay.

They've moved in the fences at Safeco Field, and no hitters on the Seattle Mariners (77 1/2) are about to complain after so many deep fly balls have died on the warning track the past several years. Right-handed batters will especially like the new 8-foot wall (as opposed to the old 16-foot wall) in left, making the fence a uniform 8 feet across the outfield, with a reduction by a much as 17 feet in the left-center power alley. At the same time, the M's think they have upgraded their offense by adding veteran bats such as OFs Raul Ibanez, Jason Bey (both FAs), and Michael Morse (via trade with Nats), and 1B-DH Kendrys Morales (trade Angels), providing some real pop in the batting order for the first time in years. The downside for manager Eric Wedge could be on defense, where all of the new additions, save Morse, are potential liabilities. But the staff looked solid this spring in Peoria, with Felix "The Cat" Hernandez (signed to a new extension) flashing dominating form. And remember how number two starter Hisashi Iwakuma owned the Angels in 2012, beating them four times without a loss? We'll see if the new shorter fences negatively impact the staff, and if closer Tom Wilhelmson can be effective as he was when coming out of the blue last season to record 29 saves and a 2.50 ERA. But by us the positives seem to outweigh the negatives in Seattle. It's an "over" at Safeco Field.

The Texas Rangers (86 1/2) are being downgraded rather significantly from last season after key weapons such as Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli walked in free agency, and young GM Jon Daniels was not able to keep pitchers Ryan Dempster and Mike Adams in the fold, either. Skipper Ron Washington also enters the season with a somewhat-depleted bullpen (especially with Alexi Ogando now a full-time starter), with Neftali Perez and ex-Royal Joakim Soria are both likely out until perhaps the All-Star break while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. But Daniels did add a couple of potentially-useful pieces to the batting order, including DH Lance Berkman, who looked very comfy in his new role in Surprise this spring and brings more discipline to the batting order than the departed Hamilton, while ex-Chisox C A.J. Pierzynski adds all sorts of intangibles to the roster. And at some point, room is going to have to be made for ballyhooed SS prospect Jurickson Profar. There's still plenty of pop in the lineup that also retains 3B Adrian Beltre and RF Nelson Cruz (though we would monitor his status after being linked to the Miami Biogenesis clinic investigation). Texas has gotten used to being a playoff team, and we don't think the Rangers will surrender that easily; it looks like an "over" in Arlington.

We've seen the LA Angels of Anaheim (91 1/2) make these sorts of "vanity" buys all of the way back to the days when the old cowboy himself, Gene Autry, owned the team and opened his saddlebags almost every year upon the advent of full-blown free agency in 1977. But we don't think Arte Moreno needed to shell out all of that money for 1B Albert Pujols a year ago or for OF Josh Hamilton this past offseason, especially with the considerable red flags involved with the latter. With money to burn, Moreno instead seems caught in a distasteful spending race with the nearby Dodgers to win the ratings wars in the L.A/Orange Country market. Sure, this looks like a "dream" offense with Hamilton joining Pujols and wondrous LF Mike Trout, who was good enough last year to almost steal the MVP from a Triple Crown winner (Miguel Cabrera). But the Angels had an All-Star team a year ago and could do no better than third place in the West, and it's worth noting that skipper Mike Scioscia's best Halo teams were demons on the basepaths with several rabbits in the lineup; not so with the current bunch. There are also some real questions with the pitching staff beyond Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson at the top of a rotation that also includes journeymen Jason Vargas, Joe Blanton, and Tommy Hanson. And the supposed savior for a train wreck of a bullpen that blew 22 saves a year ago, Ryan Madson, opens the season on the DL as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery, perhaps not returning to active duty until June. The Big A is still a nice place to spend a summer night, and the Angels should contend, but we see some potential problems on the horizon; it's a no call for us in Anaheim.

  
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