The Tenth Inning – Week 1 – Part 2

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The Tenth Inning – Week 1 – Part 2 ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>

By Mike Ivcic

Welcome to the second part of “The Tenth Inning’s” season preview, where we’ll look at the American League, let you know who will face the Giants in the World Series, and which of those two teams will ultimately celebrate with champagne and souvenir hats and t-shirts in late October.

AL East
1. New York Yankees
Take the defending division champions and add to them a legitimate mid-to-top rotation talent in Michael Pineda, the winningest postseason pitcher ever in Andy Pettitte, a legitimate left-handed hitting DH in Raul Ibanez, and lose no one besides Jorge Posada, and you have the makings of a 100-win team. Even in this tough division, the Yankees are in the top half of the league at every single position on the diamond, and managed to do it all without breaking the bank – for them. They may not win the pennant because anything can happen in a 5-or-7-game series, but over the course of 162 games, this will be the best team in baseball.

2. Boston Red Sox
Ultimately, the choice for who will finish second will come down the age-old question: offense or defense? For this season, I’ll go with offense, and the Red Sox should have plenty of it. I’m expecting a nice bounce back year from Carl Crawford, which will only serve to put this lineup nearly on par with the Yankees. If Josh Beckett and Jon Lester can each make 30+ starts and pitch to their capabilities, the rest of the pitching staff will fall into place and Bobby Valentine will have this team will once again playing beyond game 162.

3. Tampa Bay Rays
But if the paragraph above doesn’t happen, there’s not another AL team that wants to face the Rays in a one-game, do-or-die wildcard game with the pitching staff they’ve assembled. David Price, Matt Moore, James Shields, Wade Davis, and Jeremy Hellickson form what I believe to be the best complete starting rotation in all of baseball, and as long as B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria continue to produce, they’ll go into the final week with a shot at the postseason. That said, they probably shouldn’t have been in the postseason last year, and I don’t see a second straight collapse from Beantown, so I think it could be a year out of the playoffs for this club, even with the second wild card slot.

4. Toronto Blue Jays
It’s been said that no team would have benefitted more from the second wild card berth over the past 18 seasons than the Toronto Blue Jays, but this won’t be one of those years. Even with the expected emergence of Brett Lawrie as a legitimate star, there are still too many pitching questions north of the border to see this team leapfrogging any of the three above. What will be fun, though, is the return of Jose Bautista smashing everything he sees 460 feet into the hot summer nights in a ballpark near you.

5. Baltimore Orioles
Once upon a time, Peter Angelos cared about baseball. He acquired big-time names with top-tier talent like Roberto Alomar, Bobby Bonilla, and Rafael Palmeiro, and the Orioles won lots of games and even a playoff series. Then the century changed and the only time Angelos ever spoke was to complain about the Expos becoming the Nationals, so MLB threw lots of money at Peter and he went away. Now, despite having a somewhat competitive team with a young, talented farm system, the Baltimore owner is once again nowhere to be found. And Mets fans though their owner was bad.

AL Central
1. Detroit Tigers
In this division, there’s Detroit, and then there’s everybody else. With the addition of Prince Fielder, the Tigers are far and away the favorite to win this division. But before we just call this a lock and move on, remember that the entire starting rotation not named Justin Verlander is still a bit of a question mark, and the bullpen showed signs against Texas of not being quite as good as everyone thought. So while I would certainly be surprised to see anyone other than the Tigers win this division, this isn’t a team without holes, and that could cost them in the postseason.

2. Cleveland Indians
And then there’s everybody else. Let’s just take the Indians for sentimental reasons – what other city is more tortured from a sports perspective than Cleveland? – plus they have arguably the best bullpen in the division. They’ll need big seasons from their two long-tenured stars, Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner, if they want to even consider contending for the playoffs, but there are some likeable pieces on this team. One interesting note – the Indians have no one signed to a long-term contract after the end of the 2013 season, which means they’ll either have plenty of options in free agency or they’re going to spend a good, long time in the basement of the AL Central in the very near future.

3. Kansas City Royals
The loss of Joakim Soria puts a bit of a damper on the hopes of this long-dormant franchise, but KC should still have enough young pieces to push towards the .500 mark this year. And speaking just on pure talent and ability on paper, this is the team that probably has the best shot at catching the Tigers and keeping them from an almost certain coronation as division champs. Alex Gordon and Billy Butler will have to continue to mature and produce at a high level, and someone in that young rotation will have to step up to be the staff leader, but for the first time in a long time there’s reason to hope as a Royals fan.

4. Minnesota Twins
Why the Twins could win: Francisco Liriano, Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau. Why the Twins won’t win: everyone else. Gone are guys like Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, and Joe Nathan who provided exceptional performance on the field and leadership off the field. Now the Twins are scrambling to rebuild around their two franchise guys in the lineup, only those two tend have problems actually… you know… staying in the lineup. Then there’s the enigma of Liriano, who vacillates between looking like a Cy Young candidate and a AAA demotion, seemingly on a weekly basis. When healthy, those three will help win the Twins some games, but the rest of the team will have to pick up the slack at some point, and they’re simply not ready.

5. Chicago White Sox
Without Ozzie Guillen, what else is there to talk about with the White Sox? Sure Paul Konerko is still with the team, but his supporting cast continues to get weaker as the Chi Sox continue to drift further and further away from 2005. Losing Mark Buehrle will be the biggest blow, as GM Kenny Williams and first-year manager Robin Ventura will have to scramble to find someone to replace those 200+ innings Buehrle would throw every season. Ventura will ultimately be a very good big league skipper, but he doesn’t have much to work with in his first season.

AL West
1. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
I find it humorous that some “experts” have questioned whether it was smart for the Angels to sign Albert Pujols. Their argument rests on the fact that in the last three years of the deal, he will probably not be earning the money coming to him, to which I respond, “Who cares?” The point of playing the game of baseball is to win the World Series every year, and signing the best player in the entire game gives the Angels an infinitely better chance to do that in the first seven years of the contract, so why are we focusing on the last three? Add C.J. Wilson to the mix, and I believe this team will ultimately outlast the Rangers and avoid a one-game wild card situation.

2. Texas Rangers
Just in case Rangers pitchers weren’t already sent into a catatonic state by the events of last October, now they get to be reminded of their collapse four times a day, 20 times a year as Sir Albert strides to the plate. And somehow moving the guy who twice had the Cardinals down to their last strike and couldn’t get an out into the rotation and adding a Japanese pitcher whose career has tracked the likes of Hideo Nomo, Hideki Irabu, and Diasuke Matsuzaka is supposed to fix all this? This is a very good ballclub that will almost certainly make the postseason, but I’m just a little confused as to why everyone is picking this team to beat out the other team in this division that only added the best player in the entire game. That’s all.

3. Seattle Mariners
Because someone has to finish third.

Ok, I kid. But still, of the two remaining teams, Seattle did a better job of upgrading this offseason with the addition of Miguel Montero, and they’ll still trot out Felix Hernandez every fifth day, so the Mariners are probably in a better position to win this season than the A’s. Neither team’s future seems all that bright with the influx of talent into Anaheim and Arlington, but for 2012, bank on Seattle to pose a bigger threat to the big two in the AL West than Oakland.

4. Oakland Athletics
Combining two Brad Pitt movies into one is the perfect analogy for Billy Beane and this team’s offseason, as the eccentric GM seemingly merged Moneyball with the Curious Case of Benjamin Button by trading away young pitchers like Andrew Bailey and Gio Gonzalez and then signing Manny Ramirez. Note to Mr. Genius: players generally tend get better between the ages of 20-30 and worse between the ages of 30-40, not the other way around. Either way, at least Yolando Cespedis will keep fans in the Silicon Valley coming to the ballpa… oh wait, no he won’t. No one wants to go to that park. Next year, A’s fans… next year.

Playoff Predictions
Wild Card – Texas over Boston
Divisional Round – New York over Texas, Los Angeles over Detroit
Championship Series – Los Angeles over New York

World Series Prediction
San Francisco Giants vs. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Ten years and three sizes smaller for Barry Bonds’ hat, the Giants and Angels will once again meet in the World Series – and once again, the series will go the distance because of the Giants stellar pitching. But even with Tim Linsecum on the mound in game seven, San Francisco will see their dreams crushed by the Angels yet again, as Albert Pujols will become the first player since Jack Morris with the 1991 Twins and the 1992 Blue Jays to win consecutive World Series titles with two different teams.
Los Angeles 4, San Francisco 3

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