MLB

MLB: 2015 American League Preview

It was another terrible winter in Boston, and now that the 83 weeks of spring training are just about over, it’s time for my annual American League preview! I’ve been doing this in some form since 2005 and I hope you still enjoy reading this as much as I enjoy writing it. I know spring is either just around the corner or has arrived whenever I put this together.

As I’ve done the last few years, I stay away from specific predictions with where teams will place in the coming season and instead just offer a general outlook on each club. If nothing else, it makes me look like less of a doofus at the end of the year when I get things wrong.

Clubs are presented in alphabetical order by division, going east to west. I welcome your critiques in the comments.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the real games when they start Sunday night.

AL EAST

BALTIMORE: It appeared 2014 would be the year these Orioles made it to the World Series, before running into the Royals October buzzsaw. After the offseason soap opera around Dan Duquette’s aborted attempt to flee to Toronto, Baltimore will be mostly the same team with one significant difference: gone will be Nelson Cruz and his 40 HRs. They’ll fill the gap with Travis Snider, Delmon Young, Matt Wieters (when he’s healthy) and Chris Davis (when his suspension ends). Buck Showalter’s pitching remains in tact, so I expect the O’s to be in it all year.

BOSTON: The biggest question: Will the pitching match the offense? No question Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval add firepower to John Farrell’s lineup, while young guns Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts won’t be relied on as much to produce. Yet no one knows if this rotation will hold up all season and we may be whistling past the bullpen’s graveyard. But, Ben Cherington has more than enough trade chips to fortify his core of arms. Given just how much talent Boston has, a trade or two seems inevitable anyway.

NEW YORK: I can only imagine what Yankees fans thought when Brandon McCarthy signed with the Dodgers for $48 million and Brian Cashman said, effectively, he was too expensive for them. Meanwhile, they’ll spend $98.5 million this year on five veterans (Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann) who won’t play up to their contracts. The Yankees’ quiet offseason may be a harbinger of what’s to come as they wait for albatross contracts to clear. Fans will have to be patient as a result.

TAMPA BAY: A wind of change blew through Tampa this winter, starting with Joe Maddon opting out and Andrew Friedman fleeing for Chavez Ravine. Will the Rays still be the Rays with Kevin Cash and Matt Silverman in charge? When healthy, they likely have the division’s strongest rotation, yet health is the big concern. By mid-season, however, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Chris Archer, Drew Smyly and Jake Odorizzi could make the Rays the most dangerous team in the league. But all the pieces have to fall into place and we’ve never seen Cash at the helm.

TORONTO: It’s been a long, long time since I’ve believed in the Blue Jays and once again, I don’t believe in them. Spending lots of money on Russell Martin was OK and Alex Anthopolous pulled a terrific trade for Josh Donaldson. No doubt Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista will form a deadly mid-lineup force. But their pitching may be worse than Boston’s, with R.A. Dickey and Mark Buerhle entering their twilight years, Marcus Stroman devastatingly blowing out his knee in spring training and no clear dominant bullpen piece. It won’t be their year, once again.

AL CENTRAL

CHICAGO: The Pale Hose went from also-ran to legitimate AL favorite in the course of one offseason. They added a bonafide closer in David Robertson, a solid #2 starter to pair with Chris Sale in Jeff Samardzija and some great lineup compliments in Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche. Combine those guys with the existing infrastructure of Sale, bomb-hitting phenom Jose Abreu and strong supporting cast members like Adam Eaton, Avisail Garcia and Jose Quintana and it’s easy to see why there’s so much hype around the White Sox. This is a stacked division, but Robin Ventura’s team in positioned to win now.

CLEVELAND: Raise your hand if you saw Corey Kluber’s dominant Cy Young season coming at this time last year. No one out there? That’s what I thought. It goes to show you never can tell when it comes to pitching and who qualifies as an “ace.” Terry Francona has one now with Kluber and his presence gives stability to a developing rotation that will rely on younger guys like Carlos Carrasco and the perpetually-underwhelming Trevor Bauer. With few other changes besides the addition of Brandon Moss, it should be a good year in Cleveland.

DETROIT: The Tigers’ super-rotation is no more with Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello gone, yet David Price, Anibal Sanchez and a hopefully-healthy Justin Verlander remain. Those guys should be enough to prop up another playoff-worthy edition of the Tigers, but the issues in their bullpen should scare the crap out of anyone who thinks they can sail into October again. Joe Nathan was abjectly terrible last year and I can’t imagine much faith in Joakim “Two Tommy Johns” Soria exists. Detroit may need some luck, given the Central’s strength.

KANSAS CITY: Man, what a fun ride that was for the Royals last October. They were the Cardiac Kids, winning in dramatic fashion until Alex Gordon was (correctly) held at third base in World Series Game 7 and their impossible dreams for a title were dashed. While baseball may be revitalized in KC, its team didn’t improve much for 2015. James Shields is gone, replaced by Edinson Volquez. Billy Butler and Nori Aoki departed for Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios. But everything else remains in place, including that devastating bullpen.

MINNESOTA: The weak link in the AL Central, once again, is in Minnesota. With Paul Molitor now at the helm, the Twins will struggle to be relevant with a lineup bereft of elite talent (unless you still think Joe Mauer is elite, which is quite debatable) and a rotation that will be without Ervin Santana for half the year thanks to a steroid suspension. Phil Hughes may continue his bounce-back and Glen Perkins is a decent closer, but it seems very likely the Twins will top 90 losses for the fifth straight year.

AL WEST

HOUSTON: For once, the Astros have some hope. Guarded hope, but hope nonetheless. A solid core is growing thanks to George Springer’s dynamism, Jose Altuve’s electricity, Chris Carter’s power and the unexpectedly strong pitching of Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh. They’ve fortified their bullpen with Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek, added Evan Gattis, Jed Lowrie and Luis Valbeuna to their lineup and have future pieces like former top picks Carlos Correa and Mark Appel. Houston may not be great yet, but the rise is coming.

LOS ANGELES: Mike Trout is the best, their rotation should be great when healthy, Huston Street gives them an excellent bullpen, Mike Scioscia is excellent, blah blah blah…I’m having a hard time thinking positively about the Angels right now in the aftermath of their shameful handling of Josh Hamilton winning his drug suspension appeal. Hamilton clearly has personal issues to deal with and for the team to pile on like it did was inexcusable in every way. I sincerely hope Hamilton gets help and never has to play for this team again.

OAKLAND: The Athletics had one of the strangest offseasons of any team I can remember. They dealt off Jeff Samardzija just months after giving up a prized shortstop prospect to get him and puzzlingly sent Donaldson away for Brett Lawrie, but also added Billy Butler, Ben Zobrist and Tyler Clippard. So while the A’s may be solid once again, it’s anyone’s guess what Billy Beane will do during the season. It doesn’t matter if they’re bad or good, Beane could deal anyone at anytime. It makes predicting how they’ll be this year very difficult.

SEATTLE: It seems like every year folks jump on the Mariners’ bandwagon and 2015 is no different. It’s hard not to be drawn in thanks to the AL’s best pitcher, Felix Hernandez, the new big bat addition of Cruz and Robinson Cano coming off a strong first year in Seattle. I’m just not sure they’ve added enough to really be a threat to the Angels. They’ll need healthy and productive campaigns from Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton while asking a lot of 38-year-old closer Fernando Rodney. Right now, I don’t see a big year in Seattle.

TEXAS: Yu Darvish became the latest major casualty of the Tommy John epidemic running through baseball these last few years, and man does that suck for him, the Rangers and baseball in general. Texas will attempt to make due with what’s left around including Derek Holland and newly-acquired Yovani Gallardo. The Rangers were inundated with injuries last year and will look to get a full season out of Prince Fielder in 2015. They should be competitive if their rotation and bullpen hold up.

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MLB

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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MLB

MLB: Thoughts on Fielder for Kinsler

371px-Prince_Fielder_on_July_13,_2012

On Wednesday night, veteran baseball writer Jon Heyman of CBS Sports bucked his longtime trend of simply confirming the work of other sportswriters and did some actual reporting of his own, breaking the biggest star-for-star trade in Major League Baseball in years: Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler, pending physicals and Fielder’s expected waiving of his no-trade clause.

This trade has so many implications, so many ripple effects and so many facets I decided to buck my own longtime trend of only writing about such things in 140-character bursts and actually fire up the blog to get my many thoughts about it out.

All of this comes with the caveat that the thing could blow up at any second. But without further ado, here’s how the deal affects each of the major players involved:

TIGERS: Yahoo’s Jeff Passan is reporting the Tigers will be kicking in $30 million of the remaining $168 million on Fielder’s deal. Kinsler is owed a guaranteed $62 million, which could get as high as $69 million if the Tigers exercise a 2018 player option.

Kinsler, 31, has a .262/.341/.438/.780 line over the last three seasons, averaging a 107 OPS+, 21 HR, 159 H, 104 R and 149 games played over that stretch. Even though his numbers the last two years haven’t been as good as his stellar 2011 campaign (when he hit 32 HR and posted an .832 OPS), Kinsler is easily still a top 5 AL second baseman and should hold up well enough at the position to stay there through the end of the deal.

It seems likely the Tigers will move Miguel Cabrera back across the diamond to first where I imagine he will split time with Victor Martinez in a 1B/DH timeshare. That leaves an opening at third, where top prospect Nick Castellanos could find himself, although he moved from third to left field for 2013. There could also be a return engagement for Jhonny Peralta, as he profiles better for a corner at this point in his career.

Regardless, first-year manager Brad Ausmus now has a remade infield that should be much better defensively than the one that lost in six games to the Red Sox in the ALCS. The reduced wear-and-tear on Cabrera could make an already historically-dangerous hitter more dangerous. The Tigers are losing a lot of offense by dumping Fielder (more on that to come), but the Red Sox proved just how important run prevention can be.

Perhaps more importantly, this trade gives the Tigers financial flexibility. The savings should allow them to make longterm pacts with Max Scherzer (who’d been rumored to be on the block) and, after next season, Cabrera, who can be a free agent after 2015. The possibility that Cabrera could spend the last years of his career at 1B/DH with the Tigers makes Detroit an even more enticing option for him.

Also, don’t be surprised if the flexibility also leads to the signing of an outfielder to replace some of Fielder’s bat. Carlos Beltran is the name to watch.

Mike Illitch wants that World Series ring before he dies. He’s taking a big gamble by green-lighting this, but it’s got a great chance of paying off.

RANGERS: Texas is getting a Texas-sized bat from a Texas-sized man in Fielder. He has few peers over the last three years: .297/.396/.515/.911, 145 OPS+, averaging 31 HRs, 35 2Bs and 175 hits. Despite his size, Fielder has been exceptionally durable as the active consecutive games played leader at 505. He’s missed just 13 regular season games since the start of 2006.

It’s still a long commitment of seven years left for Fielder, 29, and who knows how he’ll age. There’s a bad track record for overweight sluggers in their 30s (look no further than his lineage). But the Rangers could be getting a superstar offensive player in the middle of their order in a hitter’s park at a shade under $20 million a season.

For a team with many solid building blocks already in place, it could be a steal when you consider how much the likes of Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols are being paid and how much you can expect Robinson Cano to make this winter.

There are reports Tigers people were down on Fielder for his on and off-field performance in the 2013 playoffs, after he hit 4-for-22 in the ALCS and did, well, this. I think Fielder was injured but wouldn’t admit it or take himself out of the lineup. The Tigers’ willingness to move him was more about clearing salary and trying to remake the team more than anything else.

The Rangers no longer have to think about trading entrenched shortstop Elvis Andrus or prospective second baseman Jurickson Profar now that they’ve moved Kinsler, and Profar will finally get the shot he deserves at second base in 2014. A couple years ago, Profar and Mike Trout were similarly touted as prospects, but Profar has a paltry .644 OPS in an admittedly small sample of 94 MLB games.

Profar had to assume a super-utility role for the Rangers in 2013, seeing time at short, second, third, left field and DH. That probably wasn’t the best way to use a prospect who’s still only 20 years old, but the trade of Kinsler provides a clear path for Profar to play everyday at one position.

The Rangers are also still in a position to add more offense, but it will probably be in the outfield or behind the plate. They’ll also be a player for Beltran as well as Brian McCann.

After this trade, the Rangers are better positioned to leapfrog over the Athletics in the AL West and get back to the World Series, where they were in 2010 and 2011.

FREE AGENT/TRADE MARKET: I’ve touched on this a bit already, noting the likes of Scherzer, Andrus and Profar won’t be on the trade market anymore, if they ever were at all. But there are important implications for the free agent market too.

For the Red Sox, there’s a potential positive in their pursuit to keep Mike Napoli. The Rangers were viewed as competition for the Napster and now that seems pretty unlikely, unless their plan is to play either him or Fielder at DH, which again seems unlikely with Mitch Moreland under team control.

It also saves the Rangers the unintentional comedy of giving up Napoli without getting a draft pick back for 2013, then giving up a draft pick in 2014 to get him back. Oh well.

On a lesser note, Omar Infante won’t be going back to Detroit now and he appears to be the fallback option for any of a number of teams who will lose out on the Cano sweepstakes, including the Yankees themselves.

This is the first major domino of the offseason to fall. Usually, it takes until the Winter Meetings for something like this to happen, and those meetings still aren’t for a couple more weeks.

With expected free agent prices to be astronomical, that could set the stage for more trades than normal this year. It should make for a very interesting winter.

Overall, I think this trade could be a win for both teams. The Tigers make their team a bit better by reshuffling the deck and getting a fantastic second baseman while the Rangers add a major bopper and a lot more payroll.

Baseball trades are awesome, especially the blockbusters. Here’s hoping for many more this winter to keep us entertained until spring arrives once again.

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