MLB: Chicago, Boston favored in AL
Be it Red or White, this should be a good summer to play for the Sox.
All-Stars Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez wound up in Boston. Adam Dunn picked Chicago, plus Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski decided to stick around.
“They did a great job getting players,” slugger David Ortiz praised his Red Sox. “This is a tough division to play at and you definitely want to go out there and get whatever you can, whatever’s available, and that’s what they did. So it all depends on us now.”
Konerko, beginning his 13th season with the White Sox, echoed that sentiment.
“We certainly have what we need in every area, starters, bullpen, lineup,” he said. “We have what we need, it’s just a matter of coming together as a team and executing. That’s easier said than done, and you have to stay healthy on top of it.”
All that, and that’s not even mentioning the four teams that actually made the AL playoffs last season – the champion Texas Rangers, the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay and Minnesota.
Health could be the biggest question in Boston, where 2008 AL MVP Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jacoby Ellsbury are coming back from serious injuries. But the Red Sox landed the speedy Crawford with a $142 million, seven-year contract and traded for Gonzalez, giving them an upgraded lineup to pair with their deep rotation.
The Red Sox finished third in the AL East in 2010, unable to keep up with the first-place Rays and wild-card Yankees. Those teams aren’t planning on backing up, and Toronto and Baltimore should be better, too.
The Central could get into the act this season with its own three-team race. Minnesota is seeking its third straight division title, Detroit signed dangerous switch-hitter Victor Martinez and Chicago added Dunn to its strong core.
“Looking at the Twins over the years, they’re always going to be competitive,” said Jim Thome, who opted to return to Minnesota in January instead of signing with the AL champion Rangers. “Look at what the White Sox and Tigers have done, they’ve upped their teams, too. It should be a fun, fun division.”
The White Sox got off to a difficult start last year, moved into first place at midseason and stumbled down the stretch while the Twins surged into the playoffs.
Chicago responded with an offseason spending spree that rivaled the Red Sox, adding Dunn’s big bat, shoring up its bullpen and bringing back team leaders Konerko and Pierzynski. Now even manager Ozzie Guillen and general manager Kenny Williams are getting along again.
Texas ran away with the West in 2010 on the way to the pennant. AL MVP Josh Hamilton is back, but the Rangers could be pushed by improving Oakland and the Los Angeles Angels.
Of course, a major injury or trade could jumble any one of the divisions, setting the stage for another wild season.
A look at the AL in predicted order of finish:
Boston Red Sox
There are high hopes in Boston, and all the pieces are there for a third World Series championship in eight years. Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka form a solid rotation, with dependable swingman Tim Wakefield ready to fill in if needed. The lineup has speed with Crawford and Ellsbury and power with Ortiz, Gonzalez and Youkilis.
The most glaring issue on the loaded Red Sox could be Jonathan Papelbon, who is under pressure after an off-year. Bobby Jenks and Daniel Bard could take over at closer if Papelbon falters.
New York Yankees
Spurned by Cliff Lee, the Yankees strengthened their bullpen and weakened a division rival by signing free agent Rafael Soriano to a $35 million, three-year contract to set up for fellow All-Star closer Mariano Rivera. Soriano had an AL-best 45 saves for Tampa Bay last season and gives New York another dynamic arm for late in games.
That bolstered ‘pen could get plenty of work.
Beyond CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes, there are major questions in the rotation for Joe Girardi and new pitching coach Larry Rothschild. A.J. Burnett had a strong spring training but is coming off a dismal 2010 season.
Tampa Bay Rays
It was a long, cold winter for the defending division champs, whose payroll constraints played a role in the departure of Crawford, first baseman Carlos Pena, starting pitcher Matt Garza and seven of the team’s top eight relievers. Tampa Bay’s payroll is projected to be about $41 million, down from $73 million last season.
All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria and speedy center fielder B.J. Upton are back to go along with a deep rotation headed by ace David Price. Manager Joe Maddon also is hoping to get an offensive boost from aging stars Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, who each signed one-year deals with goals of putting up big numbers and doing better in free agency next winter.
Looking for a surprise team in the American League? Buck Showalter took over the Orioles last August and led them to a 34-23 finish. Then Baltimore did a decent offseason impersonation of its big-budget division rivals, signing first baseman Derrek Lee and designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero, and trading for third baseman Mark Reynolds and shortstop J.J. Hardy.
The biggest problem for the Orioles is they play in the star-studded East, and they’re going to need their young starting rotation – headed by Jeremy Guthrie and Brian Matusz – to step up if they’re going to contend.
Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays are hoping new manager John Farrell can help Brett Cecil, Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow and Kyle Drabek turn into the foundation of a strong rotation that will help them keep up in their formidable division. Farrell, who takes over for the retired Cito Gaston, spent the previous four seasons as Boston’s pitching coach.
The lineup, which had a major league-leading 257 homers, took a hit with the trade of pricey outfielder Vernon Wells to the Angels but still has home run king Jose Bautista, Aaron Hill and Adam Lind.
Chicago White Sox
The main marketing slogan for the White Sox is “All In” and they certainly earned it in the offseason. They re-signed first baseman Konerko and catcher Pierzynski to multiyear deals and bolstered their bullpen by adding free-agent relievers Jesse Crain and Will Ohman.
But the biggest move was a $56 million, four-year contract for Dunn, who gives Chicago some sorely needed power from the left side. The big Texan has 354 homers and 880 RBIs in 10 major league seasons, but has never been a regular designated hitter, something he will try with the White Sox.
The two-time defending Central champions had a quiet winter, re-signing right-hander Carl Pavano and Thome, who needs just 11 homers to reach 600 for his career. Then again, Minnesota’s biggest offseason need was time – a sorely needed break for stars Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan to recover from injuries.
Mauer had minor left knee surgery in December, delaying his progress in spring training. Morneau, who won the AL MVP award in 2006, was limited to 81 games last season due to a concussion. Nathan, who had 47 saves in 2009, is coming back after reconstructive right elbow surgery. Their health could be key to Minnesota’s chances in 2011.
Martinez gives Detroit another big bat for its potent lineup but first baseman Miguel Cabrera was arrested in February on suspicion of driving under the influence and resisting an officer without violence, both misdemeanors. Cabrera, who has submitted a written plea of not guilty, insists he is focused on baseball and the Tigers are going to need him to contend for a playoff spot.
The Tigers will be without oft-injured reliever Joel Zumaya at the start of the season, leaving newcomer Joaquin Benoit and All-Star closer Jose Valverde to handle the action late in games.
Grady Sizemore is on his way back after undergoing microfracture surgery on his left knee. The three-time All-Star center fielder could give Cleveland another offensive threat to go with Shin-Soo Choo, who quietly hit .300 with 22 homers and 90 RBIs last season.
That’s it for the bright side in Cleveland, which has a suspect rotation beyond Fausto Carmona and is likely headed for its third consecutive losing season.
Kansas City Royals
Kansas City’s rich farm system is even more loaded after a December trade sent ace Zack Greinke, shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and cash to Milwaukee for shortstop Alcides Escobar, outfielder Lorenzo Cain and right-handers Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress. The problem is most of the Royals’ top prospects are at least a year or two away from having a significant impact on the big league club.
One of the majors’ toughest lineups got a little deeper when All-Star third baseman Adrian Beltre agreed to an $80 million, five-year contract with the AL champs in January. Beltre, an outstanding defender, hit .321 with 28 homers and 102 RBIs for Boston last season. He pushes Michael Young to designated hitter and utility infielder, unless the Rangers agree to trade the six-time All-Star.
Texas tried to bring back Lee, who instead decided to sign with Philadelphia. AL Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz toyed with becoming a starter but will stay as the closer. Brandon Webb, who won the NL Cy Young Award in 2006 with Arizona, also could help the rotation at some point.
Newcomers Hideki Matsui, David DeJesus and Josh Willingham are being counted on to boost an offense that managed just 109 homers and 663 runs last season, the team’s second-fewest in the last 28 non-shortened seasons. Matsui will serve as the primary DH after batting .274 with 21 homers and 84 RBIs last season for the Angels.
The pitching staff is young and talented from the front of the rotation to the back of the bullpen. Trevor Cahill went 18-8 with a 2.97 ERA last season and fellow All-Star Andrew Bailey had 25 saves and a 1.47 ERA. But Bailey was hampered by a strained forearm during spring training, a concern heading into the season.
Los Angeles Angels
Mike Scioscia’s team is hoping the return of Kendrys Morales and a retooled bullpen will help return the Angels to their winning ways. Los Angeles finished third in the division last season at 80-82, its first losing record since 2003.
Morales, who hit 34 homers in 2009, was lost for the year when he broke his leg while jumping on home plate to celebrate a game-ending grand slam on May 29. Free-agent relievers Scott Downs and Hisanori Takahashi will help in the middle innings, and Vernon Wells should provide a lift on offense and defense after coming over in a trade with Toronto. Wells hit 31 homers in his final season with the Blue Jays.
There was a lot of anticipation in Seattle a year ago, and the Mariners finished with the AL’s worst record at 61-101. Manager Don Wakamatsu was fired in August and Eric Wedge agreed to take over the rebuilding job in October.
Wedge inherits a club that finished with a major league-low 513 runs last season. At least he still has All-Star outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and AL Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez, who had a majors-best 2.27 ERA in 2010.