Thursday, April 1, 2010
In that AL East division race, Tampa will be able to matchup with the 'big boys' in New York and Boston with talented young pitching that I believe is primed to take a big step forward, a deep bullpen, and some exciting young hitters throughout the lineup. Leading that rotation is underrated ace James Shields, just entering his prime at 28 years old and the senior member. Following him in order will be Matt Garza, Jeff Niemann, David Price and Wade Davis.
The Rays now have a legitimate closer in Rafael Soriano, and a quality setup man in Dan Wheeler. But they will be challenged at least early as lefty J.P. Howell battles injury. The offense will feature 3rd baseman Evan Longoria and outfielder Carl Crawford, two of the best, most exciting all-around players in baseball. They will be supplemented by outfielder B.J. Upton, 1st baseman Carlos Pena, 2nd baseman Ben Zobrist, and shortstop Jason Bartlett.
I am picking that Yankees-Red Sox race as a dead-even battle right behind Tampa, with the 2nd place team here in the AL East becoming the Wild Card playoff club. At this point, I'm going to call it for the Red Sox. Boston made significant upgrades to it's defense in the off-season. That and the further development of some of it's young stars will make the difference, and leave the defending World Series champion Yankees on the outside looking in come the post-season.
Boston comes at you in it's rotation with Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey, 'Dice-K' Matsuzaka and either youngster Clay Buccholz or veteran knuckleballer Tim Wakefield as the 5th starter. Closer Jonathan Papelbon and his young setup man Daniel Bard take a back seat to no one in those roles. Boston has a deep, versatile bullpen behind those two as well that will allow it to matchup in most any way it wants against any opponent in the late innings.
In the lineup, the Bosox have brought in brilliant defenders in shortstop Marco Scutaro, 3rd baseman Adrian Beltre, and outfielder Mike Cameron. They join a quality returning cast that includes outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, 2nd baseman Dustin Pedroia, 1st baseman Kevin Youkilis, and outfielder J.D. Drew. Last season's big pickup, catcher Victor Martinez, will be around for his first full year in Beantown. A huge key will be DH David Ortiz. A full productive season from 'Big Papi' might push Boston past Tampa at the wire.
The Yankees return a team that is good enough to once again contend all season. Rotation regulars C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte and Javier Vazquez are as good a 1-4 as there is in the game. Phil Hughes has won the 5th starter role, and his pitching in that role will be pivotal in the Yanks attempt to repeat. Joba Chamberlain has been bumped to the pen, where his skill set actually profiles better than on the mound. He is part of a talented bullpen crew setting up the game's all-time greatest clutch closer, Mariano Rivera.
At the plate the Yanks will come at other teams with a deep, veteran group of professional, dynamic hitters that includes Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, and newcomer Curtis Granderson. I just don't think that the Yankees overall lineup or depth profiles as strong and versatile as the Rays or the Red Sox. But there is certainly enough top level talent that if they all perform up to their potential, the Yankees could successfully repeat as champions.
The AL East is filled out by Baltimore and Toronto, each of whom has reason to hope, but each of whom is light-years behind the top three clubs at this point. The Orioles are my pick for 4th place. With a lineup that features strong, young stud hitters like Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Matt Wieters, and Nolan Reimold supported by solid veteran 2nd baseman Brian Roberts and still-talented old-head 3rd baseman Miguel Tejada, the O's will be no pushover. How fast their young pitching, especially Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman, become real big league winners will determine how fast they begin to challenge.
The Blue Jays loss of longtime veteran ace Roy Halladay in trade have them looking like cellar-dwellers, a position which they might occupy for a few years to come as they rebuild. In fact, we might as well name the other bottom feeders throughout the American League right now. Kansas City in the AL Central and Oakland in the AL West have the looks of last place clubs right now, despite the presence of '09 A.L. Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke in KC and fast-rising righthander Brett Anderson with the A's.
At the top of the AL Central, I am going to pick the Minnesota Twins. That pick would have been an easy one with veteran closer Joe Nathan on board, but he will have Tommy John surgery and miss the entire season. I believe that the Twins lineup featuring my pick for AL MVP, catcher Joe Mauer supported by 1st baseman Justin Morneau, outfielder Michael Cuddyer, DH Jason Kubel, and 2nd baseman Orlando Hudson is the best in the division. The Twins pitching is a bit 'no-name', but it has depth and talent as well.
For the rest of the AL Central, I'm going to pick it as Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland in that order. The Tigers rotation with Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, and Max Scherzer at the top has tremendous upside potential, and they have a solid bullpen with newcomer Jose Valverde at the back. Manager Ozzier Guillen will drive his Chisox to contend much of the year before falling short with no fault to the 1-2 punch of Mark Buehrle and Jake Peavy at the top of the rotation or dynamic youngster Gordon Beckham at 2nd base. The Tribe has 'dark horse' written all over it, but just too many questions right now to actually pick higher than 4th place.
In the AL West, it has been the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim running the show for most of the last decade. I see the Halos again taking the division, but it's getting tighter. Hitters like Torii Hunter, Kendry Morales, and Howie Kendrick, and pitching that remains deep and talented despite the loss of ace John Lackey should be enough. Seattle seriously cut into the LA edge by obtaining veteran lefty Cliff Lee to go along with young ace Felix Hernandez. Chone Figgins and Ichiro Suzuki give the M's a pair of offensive dynamos, but the signing of perennial bad boy Milton Bradley should blow up in their faces. Texas has plenty of offensive pop, but doesn't seem to have enough pitching to challenge for the top just yet.
When the playoffs begin in the American League, I think that the experience the young Rays gained by unexpectedly advancing to the 2008 World Series will serve them well this time around. I can see the Rays and the Red Sox downing the Twins and the Angels in the post-season, advancing to meet one another in what would shape up to be an ALCS as potentially dramatic as their '08 series won by Tampa in 7 games. No reason this rematch won't go the same distance, and I'm picking the Rays to frustrate Red Sox Nation one more time.
For the big award winners, I look into my crystal ball and see catcher Joe Mauer of the Twins taking the AL MVP Award in a very tight race with Rays' 3rd baseman Evan Longoria. I'll take the Tigers righthanded flame-thrower Justin Verlander to win the American League Cy Young Award. Much of the AL Rookie of the Year talk is already centering around Texas' flame thrower Neftali Feliz and a pair of Tigers in 2nd baseman Scott Sizemore and outfielder Austin Jackson. But I'm going to call it for Baltimore Orioles lefty Brian Matusz. There seems to be a ton of good, young talent at Camden Yards, and Matusz will be one of the keys as the franchise tries to return to it's former greatness in the AL East, baseball's toughest division.
COMING TOMORROW: MLB 2010: National League