Thursday, April 2, 2009

MLB 2009: American League

Our World Series Champion Philadelphia Phillies will open up defense of their crown on Sunday night at Citizens Bank Park in a nationally televised game against the Atlanta Braves. For the next three days leading up to Opening Day, I will take a look at Major League Baseball's upcoming 2009 season, beginning today with a look at the American League, continuing on Friday with the National League, and then finally on Saturday taking a close look at the Fightin' Phils in particular. All talk about contention for the American League pennant has to start in the East Division, home to three of the best teams in baseball. The defending A.L. champion Tampa Bay Rays didn't do much in the off-season, but they did make the one move that they really needed, adding a strong, veteran right-handed bat to their lineup. I think most of you may have heard of him. His name: Pat Burrell. Yup, 'Pat the Bat' (pictured), who helped dash the Rays hopes in last fall's World Series with a booming double high off the top of the centerfield wall to lead off the bottom of the 7th inning of a tied-up Game #5 signed with those Rays as a free agent. The fact was that the Phils never really made an offer to Burrell, who was beginning to become a defensive liability in left field and whose bat was always streaky. That double was in fact his only hit of the World Series. Still, thanks to a nice career overall and that final ringing heroic moment, Burrell will always deserve and receive affection from Phillies fans. He comes to a team that remains one of the youngest in baseball, but also one of its most talented. 3rd baseman Evan Longoria and outfielder B.J. Upton are two of baseball's biggest rising stars. 1st baseman Carlos Pena and outfielder Carl Crawford are two of game's biggest offensive threats. Their middle infield of 2nd baseman Akinori Iwamura, who just helped Japan win the World Baseball Classic for the 2nd straight time, and shortstop Jason Bartlett, who was thrown out at home plate in that 'fake throw' play in the deciding World Series game by Chase Utley that is legendary in Phillies lore, are both underrated and make a strong doubleplay combination. On the mound, the Rays sent perhaps their future best pitcher in David Price to the minor leagues to begin the season. He will be back by May at the latest, and he will be one of the game's elite arms this season and in years to come. Along with Price the Rays bring talent and depth to the rotation with James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza and others. The one weak link could perhaps be the bullpen, which performed well a year ago, but whose closer Troy Percival got hurt late in the year and is always an injury risk. The Rays may need to dip into that young talent pool to solidify the back end of their bullpen, but given health they will battle the Yankees and Red Sox for the AL East crown and another trip to the World Series. Those Yankees are moving into new digs this year at the billion dollar 'New Yankee Stadium', which replaces the legendary 'House That Ruth Built'. It will be new surroundings for the Bronx Bombers, and they will have some dynamic new faces to play there after a typical free agent signing spree. The new 1st baseman, Mark Teixeira, is perhaps the best all-around player at his position in the game. His bat should help ease the sting of losing 3rd baseman Alex Rodriguez to injury. A-Rod suffered through a difficult off-season that was mostly of his own making, but it may be the injury that proves most hurtful to the Yanks chances. The team needs him to recover and come back in May as the ARod of old, or it may struggle all year on offense. Shortstop Derek Jeter is slipping a bit, but remains the consummate team leader. On the mound, the Yanks shored up their rotation by signing both C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, and get a healthy Chien-Ming Wang back from injury. They team with veteran Andy Pettitte and young phenom Joba Chamberlain to give the Yanks one of the best rotations in the game, one that will keep them in the pennant race to the end. Closer Mariano Rivera, a future Hall of Famer, is still around to shut the door at the end. In Boston, the beloved Red Sox are also talent-rich on the mound. The rotation is led by Josh Beckett and Daisuke 'Dice-K' Matsuzaka, who was just named the MVP of the World Baseball Classic for the 2nd straight time. These two veterans will be sandwiched between one of the best young arms in the game in Jon Lester, who overcame a cancer scare a couple years back and is ready to step to the elite level. The Bosox bullpen, finished off by closer Jonathan Papelbon, may be the best in the division. On offense the key will be whether David 'Big Papi' Ortiz can continue to be a legitimate big power source in the middle of the batting order. The club also has some aging and injury-prone veteran bats in outfielder J.D. Drew, 3rd baseman Mike Lowell, and catcher Jason Varitek. But it also has a couple of exciting youngsters in gritty MVP 2nd baseman Dustin Pedroia and outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury. That is my prediction for the 1-2-3 positions in baseball's strongest division, with the Rays edging out the Yanks and Red Sox. The Central Division looks to me to be a complete toss-up, with everyone except the Royals having a legitimate shot. The Minnesota Twins chances hinge on sensational catcher and team leader Joe Mauer being able to stay healthy for most of the season, because they have enough pitching to stay with the others. The Cleveland Indians are led by MVP candidate centerfielder Grady Sizemore, but have a ton of questions. Get the right answers and they contend as well. The Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox, who won the division a year ago in a playoff with Minnesota, have similarly solid lineups with question marks up and down. In this division, I will go with the White Sox and manager Ozzie Guillen to find a way to again come out on top, with Cleveland and Minnesota hot on their heels if they stay healthy. Out in the West Division, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have been the perennial favorites, but they are starting to come back to an improving pack. They lost record-setting closer Francisco 'KRod' Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira to free agency, and now their top two starters in John Lackey and Ervin Santana are hurt and will at least begin the season on the DL. With veteran superstar Vlad Guerrero perhaps aging quickly, this could be a struggling season for the Halos. On their heels if they can find any reasonable starting pitching will be the improving Texas Rangers. The Rangers have some of the most explosive bats in the game. Outfielder Josh Hamilton, whose remarkable comeback from drug addiction has been highly publicized, is an MVP candidate. 2nd baseman Ian Kinsler rivals the Phils' Chase Utley as the top offensive player in the game at the position. 1st baseman Chris Davis and 3rd baseman Michael Young are also premier offensive talents. The play of rookie shortstop Elvis Andrus could be a key here, along with that pitching. The Oakland A's picked up a trio of veteran bats in the off-season in 1st baseman Jason Giambi, shortstop Orlando Cabrera, and outfielder Matt Holliday. Combine these with a young but talented pitching staff and the A's could surprise as well. I am going way out on a limb here and picking the Rangers to take the west, followed closely by the Angels and A's. In the playoffs, I just cannot see any of the other teams being able to matchup with the Rays-Yankees-Red Sox combination. Funny thing is, only two of those clubs can make the post-season even though they will likely be the three best teams in the A.L. overall. Call it a Rays-Yankees showdown for the pennant, with the youthful Rays overcoming the Yanks' first playoff appearance in their new ballpark. As long as Longoria, Upton, Pena, Crawford, and Burrell stay healthy, Pat the Bat could be returning to the big stage of the World Series this coming fall.

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