Every season, I make my MLB season picks. And every year they stink. Here are my American League picks for 2008. Tomorrow I will give you my National League selections. Special thanks to my sportswriting and web site partner, Eric Gouldsberry, journalist extraordinaire and co-founder of www.thisgreatgame.com.
The Boston Red Sox were as well-oiled as a team could be in 2007. They streaked out to a great start, didn’t collapse in a contrast to tradition, and with the exception of spotting Cleveland with delusions of grandeur in the ALCS, sailed through the postseason. The winter after has been every bit as good for the Red Sox; they re-signed everyone they wanted back (including World Series MVP Mike Lowell) avoided messing with chemistry by not trading for Johan Santana and was largely steered clear of the Mitchell Report. Outside of what to do with Curt Schilling’s shoulder and who’ll start in center field (Coco Crisp or rookie Jacoby Ellsbury—a good thing, as management loves competition), there’s been very little controversy in Boston heading into 2008. For now, they have it all: Veteran hitting (David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez), veteran pitching (Josh Beckett, Tim Wakefield), veteran leadership (Jason Varitek), terrific Japanese imports (Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Okajima) and hot young stars of tomorrow, if not today (Ellsbury, Jonathan Papelbon and Dustin Pedroia). Unless there’s a mass outbreak of injury, the Red Sox should have no problem returning to the top of the AL East.
To say what I just said of the Red Sox sounds awfully dismissive of the New York Yankees’ chances. That’s correct. I’m not anticipating another fall of the Yankee Empire, but there’s serious potential for some cracks to start developing with a roster that’s either aging or inexperienced. Think about it. Reigning AL MVP Alex Rodriguez is one of the younger pups on the everyday roster, and he’s turning 33 this year. Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui, Jason Giambi, Bobby Abreu and Johnny Damon are all older, and they’re not getting any younger while other teams, including the Red Sox, are. But an even bigger concern for the Yankees is pitching. Chien-Ming Wang, with nearly 40 wins over the past two seasons, is the only reliable starter. Mike Mussina (age 39) is all but washed up, Andy Pettitte (36 in June) has Mitchell Report distractions to fight off, Kai Igawa has yet to prove he truly belongs, and a young group of prospects (Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy) show promise but not much proof as of yet. And closer Mariano Rivera, at age 38, is exhibiting less A-game than he used to. In a very competitive league—and a much tougher division than in years past—the Yankees are showing severe vulnerability. It would be something of a shock if they could overcome the Red Sox—and not one if they slipped to third place.
The Toronto Blue Jays did well to finish above .500 considering what went down last year north of the border. An early shutdown for B.J. Ryan, leaving the team without a reliable closer. A season-long slump for prime power source Vernon Wells. Sizable absences from starting pitcher A.J. Burnett and first baseman Lyle Overbay due to injury. Troy Glaus cowering under steroids accusations. In an AL with a black-and-white separation of haves and have-nots, the Blue Jays are one of the few teams—maybe the only—residing in the middle-class neighborhood. Whether they can accomplish an upgrade or avoid relegation from that center depends on the health of the roster, which is essentially the same as last year. The only major addition—if you can call it that—is Scott Rolen, a brooding, oft-injured presence who replaces Glaus. The Jays have the makings of a balanced, scrappy unit that could overachieve, but that’s asking a lot in the powerful AL.
Now here’s three words you never thought you’d read together in relation to baseball: Watch Tampa Bay. I see you chuckling, but don’t laugh. It’s very possible that the team which has taken the “Devil” out of its name will give opponents a devil of a time like never before. The Rays have two quality starters (Scott Kazmir and James Shield) and possibly a third (Matt Garza); a well-rounded batting order led by Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and comeback bopper Carlos Pena; improved defense with shortstop Jason Bartlett; a third baseman of the future in rookie Evan Longoria (who does nothail from Wisteria Lane); and a potentially solid closer in Troy Percival, who pitched wonderfully at St. Louis in 2007 after being shelved for two years. Perhaps best of all, the clubhouse was cleaned of malcontents with the trading off of Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes. Some issues remain, including suspect depth in a bullpen that was beyond sorry last year, but the Rays may very well develop into the surprise of the AL, and a solid bet to set a franchise record for wins—though with their current high at 70, that’s not a tall order. True, a postseason appearance is not likely given Tampa’s placement in the Division of Death with the Red Sox and Yankees, but a third-place finish is not out of the question—and, hey, if you’re in Vegas and you have a Hamilton to burn, it’s not so insane to plunk it down to win $1,500 on the Rays, 150-1 longshots to win the World Series.
The Baltimore Orioles pretty much reached rock bottom at the end of 2007. The team stunk, the bullpen completely imploded after a 30-3 loss to Texas in August, the fans vanished from Camden Yards (whoever expected that?) and Miguel Tejada, Jay Gibbons and Brian Roberts were prominently named in the Mitchell Report. Now comes the hangover in 2008—and it won’t be pretty. But at least the Orioles have finally asserted some hope for the future. They dealt away Tejada and ace pitcher Erik Bedard, because the team could just as easily lose with them as they could without them—but more importantly, the two trades netted ten players, many of them solid young prospects, including highly-thought of Adam Jones, who may end up as an Opening Day outfielder. What’s left of the Orioles isn’t much; the pitching staff from start to finish remains awful and the lineup is filled with players (Aubrey Huff, Melvin Mora, Ramon Hernandez) who have never fulfilled the stardom they hinted at early in their careers. Yes, there is light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s going to be a long, dark ride.
The Detroit Tigers have everyone talking. There hasn’t been a lineup like this one in Detroit since 1968, when guys like Cash, Kaline, Horton and McClain won the whole enchilada. With a starting nine featuring power (Ordonez, Sheffield and Cabrera); speed (Granderson, Polanco and Jones) and hits for average (I. Rodriguez, Renteria and Guillen) one would be hard-pressed to find any weaknesses with these bats. Ditto with the Tigers’ starting pitching—with Verlander, Rogers, Willis, Bonderman and Robertson—I can’t find a weak sister in the bunch. If there’s one question mark with Detroit’s stellar crew this year, it would have to be their relief pitching. If Joel Zumaya’s shoulder rebounds, that question will be satisfactorily answered and this team could win 120 games. The fans at Comerica will be seeing some amazing baseball this season and the Tigers are on everybody’s “can’t miss” list. Unless they experience a complete breakdown at every level, Manager Jim Leyland’s job should be stress-free and as easy as writing the names on the scorecard every day. Maybe the Skipper will be so relaxed that he’ll even be able to quit smoking. Who knows? The Tigers have all of the right pieces in all of the right places and should win the Fall Classic if they play just 75% of what they’re capable of.
The Cleveland Indians have been cursed ever since they traded Rocky Colavito approximately 50 years ago. Since then, they’ve run into a whole slew of problems—from bad trades to season-ending strikes, all the way to players getting cancer and being involved in fatal boating accidents. Last season could have been such a triumph for the Indians. But, they folded like a plateful of paper-thin crepes against the Red Sox in the playoffs and handed Boston a shot at the World Series after being just one win away. Cleveland should be much tougher and a little wiser this season. Guys like Peralta, Sizemore, Hafner, Garko and Blake are more experienced and will be a little hungrier. One of the first things GM Mark Shapiro needs to do is take the Master Lock off his wallet and sign C.C. Sabathia to a multi-year mega-deal. You would think Shapiro would have learned a valuable lesson after the Twins let Johan Santana get away. It will be interesting to see how Japanese pitcher Masahide Kobayashi does—is he the real thing or just another Usual Suspect? And Closer Joe Borowski is a major accident waiting to happen. All in all, however, the Indians should do well enough to capture the AL wild card. They have the personnel, the attitude and the talent to break the Curse of Colavito and make it into the postseason once more.
The Chicago White Sox bid for free agents Torii Hunter (didn’t everyone?) and Aaron Rowand, but whiffed on both. Now they’re without a quality CF and will have to make due with either Nick Swisher or a plethora of unproven names (i.e., Alexei Ramirez, Carlos Quentin and/or Rookie Jerry Ownens). When you look at what Detroit did during the offseason, the Chisox pale by comparison. Sure, they have some solid performers—guys like Thome, Konerko and Dye are gamers who come to play every day—but they lack depth and if someone gets hurt, they’re in real trouble. Chicago’s pitching staff is light as well. Vazquez and Buehrle are semi-first-rate, but after that you have a group of unproven has-beens or wannabes like Floyd, Contreras and Danks. The bullpen is fairly strong, with arms like Jenks, Dotel and Linebrink. The only thing that will plague the Hose this season is the same ailment that will be make every other member of the AL Central sick this year—they have a lot of games against both the Tigers and Injuns in their immediate future. GM Ken Williams needed to make more moves this winter and he didn’t get it done. Consequently, he’ll be on the sideline watching the playoffs along with all of the other front office people who couldn’t get the Santana’s and Hunter’s of the free agent world.
The Minnesota Twins aren’t re-building, according to GM Bill Smith. They’re doing what’s called “re-tooling.” Re-tooling is for teams that are close to being a winner, but just need to tweak a few things to get to where they want to be. After losing their two best players (Torii Hunter is gone to the Angels and Johan Santana is off to NYC), the Twins are in a state of major flux. They did make a couple of good moves – adding OF Delmon Young and leadoff hitter Carlos Gomez in the Santana trade will help – and the Twinkies have a ton of young, untested talent on the back burner. But, their 2008 campaign is so full of if’s, and’s and but’s that I just can’t consider the Twins a contender in the super competitive AL Central, arguably the toughest division in baseball. To add to their woes, no one knows if SP Francisco Liriano will rebound from a rather serious injury. If he can’t, Minny’s starting rotation will be thinner and weaker than Gandhi on a hot summer day. Whether or not Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer will continue to be formidable is also subject to debate. The sad fact is that this squad will have to play the Indians and Tigers a whole lot, and that will mean a good number of “L’s” for this team. If Minnesota can make some type of run, I would say they’re a long shot for a wild card spot. But, other than that, they’ll swim along in third or fourth place, out on the lake that is called mediocrity.
Just how long have the Kansas City Royals been bad? Well, do names like Bret Saberhagen and George Brett ring a bell? Unless you’re in your 30’s or older, you might as well be talking about Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson. The Royals have stunk for so long the fans in K.C. have lost their sense of smell. During the offseason, they made a play for free agent Torii Hunter, but he opted for L.A. and they settled for Jose Guillen ($36 million, three years) Ouch! There is hope on the horizon, however. The Royals are slowly getting better. After stockpiling draft picks and prospects, General Manager Dayton Moore has assembled a team with great potential. But, potential won’t win games. Much ballyhooed 3B Alex Gordon got better during the second half last year, and kids like Billy Butler, Luke Hochevar and Brian Bannister are impressive and will only improve if given time. The Royals could spoil a lot of other teams’ dreams in 2008, but are several seasons away from achieving their own. It will be another nightmarish year for the kids (and the fans) from K.C.
Last year, I picked the Seattle Mariners to win the AL West while everyone else thought nothing of them. Give us credit for reading between the lines. The Mariners were the surprise of the AL although they missed out on the postseason, and…they’ll likely miss out again in 2008. It won’t be because of the pitching, which has been strengthened with the addition of Erik Bedard and an overpaid yet serviceable Carlos Silva, both of whom will flank around the still very young, bound-to-be-improved Felix Hernandez (22 in April). Or because of the bullpen, anchored by J.J. Putz—far and away the most underrated closer in the AL. You may know where I’m headed, but before the defenders waive the M’s .287 batting average—second best in the majors in 2007—at me, do the homework a little more and you see a lot of singles, few long hits and even fewer walks attached to that figure. And if you think Silva is overpaid, $14 million better get the Mariners something more from Richie Sexson than his .205 average, 21 homers and 63 RBIs from a year ago. Seattle’s close, but they still have some work to do.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have done theirs. They gained pitcher Jon Garland from the White Sox to fortify an already stout rotation, and nabbed outfielder Torii Hunter via free agency, adding more fear factor to an everyday lineup that’s starting to look sharp from top to bottom. Otherwise, there are few weaknesses on this team. If you want to carp in that direction, you can find some fault in a relatively inexperienced infield (all the more so with Gold Glove shortstop Orlando Cabrera gone in the trade for Garland), or that an overcrowded outfield may lead to some clubhouse dissension courtesy of the odd man out, or that closer Francisco Rodriguez is an angry guy after losing his arbitration battle. But these are minor issues. So how good are the Angels? I’ve gone this far without mentioning Vladimir Guerrero. But now I have, and now you see. The Angels are the team to beat in the West, and quite possibly all of baseball.
Gertrude Stein once wrote that there’s no “there” there in Oakland. If A’s front office czar Billy Beane keeps trading away his best talent, there won’t be much “there” there in the Coliseum, either. And because of the team’s low budget and relative small revenue streams playing in a multi-purpose stadium, there will be a continued lack of “there” until the A’s become the Oakland A’s of Fremont. (And if you thought there was no “there” there in Oakland, wait ‘til you see what’s around the A’s proposed ballpark in Fremont.) Over the winter, Beane traded away the team’s best pitcher (Dan Haren) and best hitter (Nick Swisher), and rumors are flying rampant to the point that the remaining A’s are keeping the nearest U-Haul location on speed dial, just in case. The A’s, as they currently are, might make a dent in the West—but they need solid production and good health from starting pitcher Rich Harden, third baseman Eric Chavez and shortstop Bobby Crosby—all of whom have given Oakland neither over the past few years. My old standby is that you can never count the A’s out, but if they start off awful, who’s left “there” in Oakland may well get cleaned out to other teams.
If anything else, the Texas Rangers will be interesting to watch this year because their two biggest offseason pick-ups were players with deeply troubled pasts: Josh Hamilton (drug addiction) and Milton Bradley (hot-tempered addiction). For the Rangers to have any chance of success, they’d better hope these two major talents don’t relapse during the season, because the rest of this roster is a virtual repeat of last year’s last-place finish—and less. Good P.R. was spent bringing Nolan Ryan back as the team’s new president with the hope he could reverse the franchise’s ill fortunes of the past eight years; if only the 61-year old Ryan could still pitch. No one else on the Rangers’ staff seems to be able to. Texas has no closer, not much power (Hank Blalock returns, but it remains to be seen how much pop he has minus a rib) and, as the norm so far this century, not much hope—unless owner Tom Hicks can convince baseball to change the rules to something more like soccer and borrow some of the lads over from Liverpool for the summer.