MLB: 2014 American League Preview

Given the winter we’ve had in the northeast, baseball is coming at the most welcome time possible. With that comes my annual preview of the American League, which marks my 10th year doing it.

Once again I’ll be staying away from specific predictions (this approach was a good one for me as the only team I was truly wrong about last year was Chicago) and just going with my general feelings about all 15 clubs going into the season.

Clubs are presented in alphabetical order by division going east to west. Feel free to critique me in the comments.

Enjoy and pray for spring.

AL EAST

BALTIMORE: After his meddlesome owner forced him to back out of more than one deal this winter due to medical concerns, including one with closer Grant Balfour, Dan Duquette finally opened the Orioles’ checkbook and landed compensation free agents Nelson Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez for market-value-or-under deals in late February. But it’s unlikely the Orioles improved themselves enough to jump back in the playoffs after missing them in ’13, with Chris Davis and Matt Wieters a year closer to free agency and Manny Machado opening the year on the DL.

BOSTON: With the improbable World Series run behind them, questions loom over the Red Sox chances for a repeat. Can they count on unproven Jackie Bradley, Jr. or Roy Hobbs impersonator Grady Sizemore to replace Jacoby Ellsbury in center field? Will wunderkind Xander Bogaerts stick at shortstop? Will the starting pitchers and relievers bounce back after a short offseason? Is Will Middlebrooks going to produce? After an improbable title, is an improbable repeat possible? With David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Jon Lester leading the way, it’s hard to deny any possibility.

NEW YORK: The Yankees didn’t take losing lying down after ’08 and they didn’t take missing the playoffs in ’13 lying down either. After a dizzying offseason of signings including Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Masahiro Tanaka, the Bombers have pieces in place for a successful year. But they also have as many questions as any team in MLB. There’s no guarantee Mark Teixeira or Derek Jeter will perform after injury-plagued years. Their rotation has no sure things, David Robertson has massive shoes to fill and who exactly will play second and third are up in the air.

TAMPA BAY: There were at least two really surprising things about the Rays offseason: first, they didn’t trade David Price, who with two years left seemed a lock to be moved; and second, they actually spent some money in free agency, bringing back James Loney for $21 million, Balfour for $12 million, extending David DeJesus for $10.5 million and picking up $4.5 million for reliever Heath Bell‘s deal. There’s absolutely no reason to expect the Rays to be anywhere besides the playoff race again this year and going all the way isn’t out of the question.

TORONTO: File this one under “ho-hum.” The Blue Jays had as quiet a winter as any team, changing up their catching situation by fetching Dioner Navarro and shedding J.P. Arencibia but really not doing much else. They were linked to several free agents, including Jimenez and Ervin Santana before each signed. It was perplexing Alex Anthopoulos didn’t bite on either since their first two picks are compensation-protected. Their lack of action could lead to an in-season fire sale if they once again disappoint, possibly undoing many of their big moves last year.

AL CENTRAL

CHICAGO: For once, it really seems like the White Sox have a plan. All it took was Rick Hahn to take over the GM chair from now-team president Kenny Williams. Yes, there is a plan, but that plan probably won’t involve a lot of winning right away. Paul Konerko‘s likely final year in the Majors will represent the last vestige of a bygone Pale Hose era. The new era is likely to be marked by hitters like Avisail Garcia, Matt Davidson, Adam Eaton and Cuban phenom Jose Abreu. Will Chris Sale remain in place as the ace they’ll build around, or will they cash in on a big package now?

CLEVELAND: The feel-good story of ’13 took place in Cleveland, where Tito Francona came out of his one-year hiatus and led the Tribe to a berth in the Wild Card game. They didn’t make a ton of changes heading into ’14, adding John Axford as their likely closer and David Murphy as a spare outfielder. Carlos Santana is poised for a real breakout as he moves out from behind the plate and Danny Salazar has ace potential. The health of veterans like Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher will determine if the Indians make that next step to a real contender.

DETROIT: GM Dave Dombrowski seemed to have a grand scheme when he traded Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler early in the winter, but little materialized outside of a curious trade of Doug Fister and adding a real closer in Joe Nathan. The Tigers have a huge question at shortstop with Jose Iglesias on the shelf for the year; my guess is Stephen Drew signs a one year deal. With Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera all here, their challenges could be overcome quite easily with great years from their superstars and supporting players.

KANSAS CITY: No question the Royals are suddenly the hot sleeper team in the AL, with pundits tripping over themselves to declare them a division favorite. I’m not ready to go that far, but coming off a surprisingly good season and adding Omar Infante and Norichika Aoki to plug their lineup holes, getting to the playoffs for the first time since 1985 (whoa) is within grasp. James Shields is a contract-year strike-throwing badass, Greg Holland might be the game’s best closer, Yordano Ventura is a stud, their bullpen is stacked and their lineup is balanced. Why not this year for the Royals?

MINNESOTA: Hope is in the pipeline for Minnesota with Byron Buxton, the game’s best prospect, possibly close to patrolling center at Target Field. That’s the most positive thing I can say about this team’s future. Their chronic inability to develop pitching resulted in laughable contracts for Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, guys just mediocre enough to lift the team above the White Sox in the standings. Still, Joe Mauer‘s career and numbers should see a boost with a full-time move to first base and the dynamic talents this moribund franchise needs could be around the corner.

AL WEST

HOUSTON: This June, the Astros will be the first team in MLB history with the top pick in the draft three years running. It’s likely they’ll break their own record in ’15 after another “rebuilding” season. These top picks will eventually pay off because Carlos Correa and Mark Appel are bonafide studs along with budding superstar outfielder George Springer. But after a winter of puzzling moves like signing Scott Feldman, trading for Dexter Fowler and pointlessly bringing in veteran relievers Chad Qualls and Jesse Crain, it makes me wonder if there’s really a plan here at all.

LOS ANGELES: I like the Angels to have a big bounce-back year. There’s too much talent here for anything else. Mike Trout continues his reign as the best player on Earth while Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols could see comebacks worthy of their past glory. Healthy and effective years for Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson will make a potent right-left rotation punch with the flame-throwing Ernesto Frieri at the end of wins. Don’t be surprised if Kole Calhoun, Peter Bourjos‘ outfield replacement, creates some serious head-turning early in the season.

OAKLAND: I’m a little dubious on the Athletics having the horses in their rotation for another postseason run unless they can pull a trade. They’ve lost Jarrod Parker to TJ, A.J. Griffin is already hurt and Scott Kazmir is, well, Scott Kazmir. Their two best remaining starters, Sonny Gray and Dan Straily, are unproven over 162-plus. Their lineup remains excellent anchored by rain-bringer Josh Donaldson, beastly Yoenis Cespedes and a parade of ex-Red Sox and they’ve got a deep bullpen with new closer Jim Johnson. But I’m not sure it’ll be enough without more moves.

SEATTLE: Let’s not mince words here: the Mariners wil regret giving Robinson Cano a 10-year contract sooner rather than later. Before that happens, there’s a window of Cano’s prime where Seattle can capitalize and win. While Felix Hernandez remains an elite ace, they’ve got question marks throughout the rest of the rotation and bullpen, plus they clearly didn’t add enough offense to support Cano. I don’t see ’14 being the M’s year as a result, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen for them before Cano’s deal becomes cringe-worthy if the right moves are made.

TEXAS: The injury bug bit a huge chunk out of the Rangers’ rotation during winter and spring training, with Tanner Scheppers of all people earning the Opening Day start. Yu Darvish will be back soon and that’s a great thing as he continues his development as an ace. But how they piece together these first few months with their rotation will be important in determining if they’ll have enough in the tank for a postseason run. Fielder is in, Cruz is out as the Rangers enter a new era without Nolan Ryan as an important franchise decision-maker.

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