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Grandslams: 2/22 Edition

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Every week, a group of writers from the BADMENBLOG will discuss several topics regarding Major League Baseball (and baseball in general) with quick, paragraph-long responses. This week, in the inaugural edition, we offer our previews of the American League.

Question One – Which five teams will make the playoffs?

Shelby: 
AL East – New York Yankees

It’s Derek Jeter’s last year, as you have no doubt been told by every living journalist. Not one MLB fan will be surprised if he and his fellow Bombers make something special out of this season. I love the signings of Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Alfonso Soriano – especially in that ballpark. CC Sabathia (trying to forget last year), Hiroki Kuroda (39 years old), Masahiro Tanaka (new life in the MLB), and Michael Pineda (finally) form 4/5ths of an extremely intriguing rotation. Their performances will obviously be the key to the Yankees’ season. Expect bombs aplenty per usual in the Bronx, and for the Yankees to count on some old faces and flirt with Lady Luck to reclaim the AL East throne. Prediction: 91-71.

AL Central – Detroit Tigers

The trendy picks for surprise division champions usually come from the AL Central. I simply don’t see another team of the quality of the dominant Detroit Tigers. Equally adept at out-slugging you or shutting you down (and breaking the poor hearts of Oakland A’s fans), they remain a daunting threat for any team, and are better looking on paper than any team in baseball. It looks like business as usual for this veteran Tiger team, with the only major change coming in the form of the off-season’s biggest blockbuster deal: Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler. I absolutely love this move for Detroit. It provides them with an injection of much-needed speed and reliability on the base paths and on defense. Joe Nathan is a boost as the anchor in the pen. Too much talent here and I’m not sold on the Indians or Royals at all as title challengers. Prediction: 97-65

AL West – Oakland Athletics

Like always, Texas, Seattle, and Los Angeles led the AL West standings in sexy offseason acquisitions. The Green and Gold specialize in making what I call “non-scrolling signings,” where the ticker on ESPN just bluntly tells you ‘Oakland signs LHP Scott Kazmir,’ and that’s that. Sonny Gray, Jarrod Parker, Kazmir, Dan Straily, and Tommy Milone form a solid rotation where the message will be clear: “Get to the 6th inning and we’ll be fine.” The bullpen is the best in the game. The lineup continues to have question marks at Catcher and Second Base, but that did not stop the A’s from placing 3rd in Home Runs and 4th in Scoring last year, despite Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick having below average and awful seasons at the plate, respectively. Smart money will be on them bouncing back. Prediction: 93-69

Wild Card – Boston Red Sox vs. Texas Rangers

Rounding out the playoffs in the stressful elimination game are the Red Sox and the Rangers. Looking at my playoff picture, it appears it will be more of the same from the American League. Only one new playoff team this year, and the Yankees won’t shock anyone by getting there. The Red Sox will have a slight dip this year in an improved division, but they are still a championship-caliber squad. Prediction: 88-74

The Texas Rangers made a ton of noise acquiring Prince Fielder, Shin-Soo Choo, and Tommy Hanson (not that loud of a signing). Fielder will be watched closely to see if he can regain his excellent form before things soured in Detroit. Choo is just a solid player and fits well into any situation. Jurickson Profar is 21 years old and now replacing Ian Kinsler, and expectations are high for the Curaçaoan phenom. Ron Washington could be on the hot seat if the Rangers do not attain this spot. Prediction: 89-73

Domenic: 
AL East – Tampa Bay Rays

Yes, the Red Sox are the reigning World Series Champion. And, yes, the Yankees just spend $300 MM or so on arguably the second, third, fourth, and fifth best free agents on the market. The Rays do not have a stud prospect like Xander Bogaerts on their Opening Day roster, nor due they have seemingly limitless coffers at their disposal. What they do have, however, is continuity – they will return the same starting lineup and rotation that led them to 92 victories and the playoffs last season. Whereas the Red Sox are counting on a few rookies to replace a ton of production and the Yankees are piecing together an infield with scotch tape and paper clips, the Rays remain a team without a real weakness. They have an offensive superstar in Evan Longoria, a lineup filled with average or better hitters, strong team defense, a deep starting rotation (headlined by a true ace in David Price), and a reinforced bullpen. While everyone else is trying to put the puzzle pieces together, consistency will be the key for Tampa Bay.

AL Central – Detroit Tigers

The Tigers are head and shoulders above every other team in this division, and it is difficult to envision a scenario where that would not be the case … aside from Miguel Cabrera spontaneously combusting, perhaps. The rotation remains strong, despite the questionable trade of Doug Fister, with Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez forming what may be the best 1-2-3 punch in the game. Losing Prince Fielder hurts the offense, to be sure, as he is ostensibly replaced in the lineup by top prospect Nick Castellanos – but the improved infield defense alone could off-set some of that decline (as Castellanos is a huge upgrade over Cabrera at third, and Cabrera is a moderate upgrade at first). And the lineup will still be quite stout, regardless. The team’s biggest weakness last season was the back-end of the bullpen, and Joe Nathan should turn things around for that group very quickly.

AL West – Texas Rangers

Despite their semi-collapses the past couple of years, the smart money remains on the Rangers. They essentially replaced Lance Berkman, David Murphy, and Nelson Cruz with Prince Fielder, Shin-Soo Choo, and a full season of Alex Rios, which seems unfair for a team that won 91 games in 2013. The loss of Ian Kinsler may hurt the offense a bit, but we are only a year removed from Jurickson Profar being the top prospect in baseball, and it isn’t unreasonable to expect him to be an average player this year (which is essentially what Kinsler was last year). This is probably the best lineup in the American League. It may have to hit like that, with Yu Darvish as the only true stud in the rotation (depending on how Martin Perez performs in his encore) … but the rotation looks at least average, and it won’t have to be much better than that for the Rangers to win 95 games this year.

Wild Card – Boston Red Sox vs. Oakland A’s

Both of these teams seem safe bets to win 90-plus games, which may well make them the presumptive favorites in most divisions – unfortunately for them, the AL East and AL West are stacked with quality teams. The Red Sox are counting on Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley, Jr. to produce a ton of value this year, while also depending on a rotation that has been very up and down over the past couple of years to remain on the upswing. I can see that working out, at least to an extent, so I can’t really imagine them missing out on the playoffs entirely. And the A’s may have been my favorite in the AL West (if not the entire AL) if they had replaced Bartolo Colon with someone more dependable than Scott Kazmir. As it stands, they are a solid team from top to bottom, built on taking advantage of the other team’s weaknesses through smart platooning. They remain, however, a true stud away from being elite – though, perhaps Josh Donaldson can be that guy.

Ran: 
AL East – New York Yankees

Realistically, I can see either the Yankees, Red Sox, or Rays winning this division. But since a pick needs to be made, the Yankees seem like the safest bet, considering that they won 85 games last season despite major struggles with injuries. During the off-season, they went out and added All-Star level players in Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran, while signing unproven (in MLB) yet very successful Japanese starter Masahiro Tanaka; they’ll also be getting the likes of Mark Teixiera and Derek Jeter back from injuries. The obvious potential weakness is the infield, where the aforementioned Teixeira and Jeter are returning after basically missing the entire 2013 season — with Jeter entering his final season as a pro and Teixiera declining with each passing season— to team-up with the likes of Kelly Johnson, Brian Roberts, Eduardo Nunez and whichever other less-than-exciting infielders find their way on the field this season. The rotation, however, looks very solid, assuming CC Sabathia has a bounce-back season (which his peripheral stats suggest he should) and the highly-coveted Tanaka lives up to the hype. The possible return of Michael Pineda could give the Yankees one of the best rotations in the sport, something they’ll probably need considering that their defense shouldn’t be one of the top units around. As with the lineup, the pitching does have a potential weakness, and that’s the bullpen. With the retirement of Mariano Rivera, the likely usage of David Robertson almost exclusively during save-situations will hurt the bullpen’s flexibility, and will result in the likes of Shawn Kelley, Preston Claiborne and possibly even failed former prospect Dellin Betances pitching in some high-leverage situations.

AL Central – Detroit Tigers

The Tigers are without a doubt the easiest division winner to pick. The offense, while a bit right-hand heavy, should once again be one of the best in MLB, as there are simply not many outs to be had in this lineup. I do worry about Ian Kinsler moving away from Texas and playing in a less hitter-friendly park, but the likes of Miguel Cabrera, Torii Hunter (still a very well-rounded hitter), and Victor Martinez should be more than capable of carrying the offense, and if they get bounce-back seasons from Austin Jackson and Alex Avila, this might be the best offense in the majors. Defensively, the departure of Prince Fielder helps them tremendously, as it moves Cabrera away from the hot-corner and to 1B, while probably not downgrading at 2B from Omar Infante to Kinsler (some may even argue upgrading there, too). The rotation should be outstanding, even if you believe that both Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez are due for a slight decline, because Justin Verlander should bounce back to his old self; he hasn’t been as “bad” (by his own very high standards) as he was in 2013 since 2008, so there’s not much reason to believe he’s about to hit a significant decline as a 31-year-old. The bullpen lost the good but under-appreciated Joaquin Benoit, but replacing him with Joe Nathan was a fantastic move, as they shouldn’t lose much there in terms if value, and may even gain some.

AL West – Oakland A’s

In a division that’s probably a bit shakier than most initially think, it’s hard to pick between the A’s and the Rangers, but as I did with the AL East, I’ll go with the team that I think has fewer flaws. While the Rangers can without a doubt be the highest scoring team in the majors, I do think their lineup has the possibility of being boom-or-bust, while their rotation will be pretty questionable after the fabulous Yu Darvish and pretty-good-when-healthy Matt Harrison, especially playing 81 games in that hitter’s park of theirs. The A’s, on the other hand, should once again be one of the best offenses in the league, even if Josh Donaldson declines from his very good season last year. It’s important to remember that they were the 3rd best offense in the majors according to wRC+ last season, despite subpar production from Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick, both of whom should probably bounce-back to their respective 2012 forms, or at least closer to them. Having Alberto Callaspo from the start of the season should also help more than it may seem, as they finished 2013 with the 21st best production at 2B in the Majors according to wRC+. The loss of Bartolo Colon from the rotation shouldn’t go unnoticed, and the rotation probably isn’t as strong as it was in years past, but it’s hard to envision them getting worse than league-average results considering they play 81 games in a good pitcher’s park; their very solid bullpen should help that, too.

Wild Card – Boston Red Sox vs. Texas Rangers

Both of these teams may very well end the season as division winners, so it’s hard to not pick them as, at worst, the two wildcard teams. Since I already gave my pretty brief thoughts on the Rangers, here I’ll add that the Red Sox should be near the top of the league in offensive production, though they are relying on some possibly shaky players to do so. What may cause them some issues is their pitching; the rotation should be fine if all five starters pitch to their capabilities while staying healthy, but considering the names on that list (John Lackey, Jake Peavy, Clay Buchholz, and Felix Doubront), that’s fairly unlikely. They should still have enough wins by the end of the season to reach the wildcard game, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Rays take their, or the Rangers’, spot.

Jordan: 
AL East – New York Yankees

The Yankees are back, everybody. With offseason signings of outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, and potential future Hall of Famer Carlos Beltran, the Bronx Bombers are fully reloaded and geared up for the 2014 campaign. They also signed Kelly Johnson, who will likely start at third base. Losing Robinson Cano hurt, but the additions of Johnson and veteran Brian Roberts (if he can stay healthy) along with long time Yankee Eduardo Nunez should ease the pain a little bit. Internally, Mark Teixeira is returning, and will add some much needed power in the lineup, while playing solid defense. Brett Gardner will likely join Girardi’s shiny new toys in the outfield, and can be expected to be a solid contributor. Of course, no Yankees preview could be complete without mentioning shortstop Derek Jeter. He will be taking his final ride around MLB stadiums this year, and, after a full offseason of recovery, could potentially put up average or above average numbers at the plate.

AL Central – Detroit Tigers

The Tigers made headline news in the offseason, trading slugger Prince Fielder for second baseman Ian Kinsler. While Fielder contributed much of the Tigers’ power in 2014, Kinsler injects more of a well-rounded game for the team. He’s a solid hitter with decent pop, run of the mill defense and average athleticism. His game has fallen off a bit from a few years ago, but he should still help contribute greatly. Their rotation is still phenomenal, featuring aces Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. While Scherzer outperformed Verlander last year, it’s hard to expect anything less than good production from the MVP of just a few years ago. Oh, and another thing that may help is that they have the greatest hitter alive, Miguel Cabrera. The absence of Fielder will allow him to move back to his natural position of first base and potentially end the string of injuries that plagued him last year. Overall, expect a great season from the Tigers.

AL West – Texas Rangers

This was by far the hardest call for me to make. The Angels have arguably the best player in the league, the Mariners made several free agency splashes, and you can never doubt the A’s. However, I feel like the Rangers made moves in the offseason that propelled them ahead of the pack. As mentioned above, the team acquired a power bat in Prince Fielder. His presence will add veteran leadership and gaudy numbers from the home run department. Although Fielder’s acquisition made many headlines, it was possibly the addition of Shin-Soo Choo that makes this team legit. Choo is the type of guy who can hit leadoff with an above .300 average, top of the league OBP, and still has noticeable pop in his bat (I would know – I was at the game where he hit 3 home runs against the Royals). This team still has many question marks, however, such as the rotation outside of Yu Darvish, and the performance of young players like Jurickson Profar. If things click for the Rangers, and I believe they will, they should come out victorious in the AL West.

Wild Card – Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics

The Red Sox were a no-brainer here. They’re the defending World Series champions, and have kept most of their team intact. Jacoby Ellsbury pulled a Johnny Damon and departed for the Evil Empire, however, and that will have a lasting impact on the team. Stephen Drew is still on the free agent market, and there is a chance he returns to Boston. They are also preparing for top prospect Xander Bogaerts to begin his major league career, and fellow young stud Jackie Bradley, Jr. is waiting in the wings, as well. The Athletics, as previously stated, can never be doubted. They have a budding star in outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, last year’s MVP candidate Josh Donaldson, and many solid surrounding pieces such as Brandon Moss, Coco Crisp and John Jaso. Their rotation is solid as well, with Jarrod Parker and Sonny Gray having very high ceilings and veteran Scott Kazmir, as well. Both of these teams have decent shots to make it to the postseason, even if they don’t win their division.

Question 2 – Who is your “dark horse” team for this season?

Shelby: My dark horse is the Kansas City Royals. They don’t have a lot of depth or room for error, but they have a very solid and upward trending club. Greg Holland is the best reliever in the American League, and Omar Infante was an outstanding addition. Royals fans were very happy with an 86-win season last year, and they will have to exceed that number if they truly want to pressure Detroit or play some October ball.

Domenic: The Baltimore Orioles have some weaknesses on their big league roster, and they are counting on Manny Machado coming back strong and Chris Davis proving his 2013 season was no fluke. That being said, they have a great deal of young talent all over the field (including the newly signed duo of Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz), and their upper minors are stacked with MLB-quality ceilings – Jonathan Schoop, Henry Urrutia, Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, and Eduardo Rodriguez could all contribute this year, and it would not surprise me if one of them ends up as the league’s Rookie of the Year. Their chances of success may be very dependent on luck and youth, but they have drafted and scouted well, and I think it will pay off in the near future.

Ran: If everything falls into place, I can see the Los Angeles Angels making the playoffs. Obviously, having the best player in the sport is a good way to start, and even if you expect Mike Trout to decline (at least somewhat), he’ll still be one of the best players this season. If — and these are two big ifs — Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton find a way to play as well as we’ve seen them play before 2013, this will probably be the best offense in the majors. The Angels should also be no worse than solid defensively all-around, which will be important considering their not-so-sexy pitching staff. Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson are solid, but at this point in their careers they’re probably better suited as number two and three starters rather than number one and two starters. The rest of the rotation is unreliable, though it’s not crazy to envision a scenario in which either one or both of Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs give the Angels league-average or better production, considering that Santiago has a 3.30 career-ERA as a starter (though with questionable peripherals) and Skaggs is only entering his age-22 season, and was the #12 ranked prospect in all of baseball before last season, per Baseball America.

Jordan: My dark horse team is the Los Angeles Angels. I know, I know, the trope of the Halos putting all together has been done to death over previous years. But, let’s face it – it’s impossible to not consider them as a dark horse. Mike Trout is the best all-around player in baseball. Albert Pujols could prove his time in LA thus far has been a fluke. Josh Hamilton can return to form. There is so much talent on this team, it’s hard to say that there isn’t a solid chance they’ll explode. I’m not saying the Angels will win 90 games, or even 80, but don’t be surprised if they do.

Question 3 – What team do you expect to disappoint?

Shelby: My team to disappoint in 2014 is the Cleveland Indians. Why? Because Cleveland doesn’t get to have nice things. Just kidding, I expect them to be tough again this year, but remember they went on a 10 game winning streak (and won 15 of 17) to close the season. Factor in Texas’ tailspin, and you’ve got a very lucky ball club. With better contending teams in the AL West and AL East, I expect the Indians to slip to 3rd in the Central.

Domenic: As I alluded to earlier, the Yankees may well have the most uncertainty of any team in the playoff race. I have a great deal of faith in free agent additions Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran, and I think Masahiro Tanaka has the stuff and polish to be at least solid-average in his first season in the Majors. That group was added to a team, however, with a laundry list of question marks. Can Derek Jeter stay healthy and bounce back? Can Mark Teixeira stay healthy and bounce back? Can Kelly Johnson play third base? Can Brian Roberts play more than 70 games? Is CC Sabathia on the decline? Is anyone in the bullpen even average, beyond David Robertson? This may well end up as a team of stars and scrubs, despite the payroll, and that is generally a high-risk, high-reward team-building strategy. For now, I remain pessimistic.

Ran: I think anyone who expects the Baltimore Orioles to be as good, or close to, as they were last season is probably in for a surprise. There is surely some upside offensively, but it’s hard for me to get excited when that upside is from the same guys that are already expected to perform well, too. It sounds strange, but when you think about it, is there anyone on the O’s that has legitimate upside other than Chris Davis, Adam Jones, Manny Machado and probably Matt Wieters? And aren’t those the players who are expected to perform well anyway? With the likes of Ryan Flaherty, Nolan Reimold, David Lough, and Jemile Weeks slated to see a large amount of plate-appearances, it’s simply hard to get excited at the possibility of this being a good, let alone a great, offense. Then, when you consider that Machado is coming off major knee surgery and, as immensely talented as he is, only had a 101 wRC+ last season, the thought of this team scaring anyone offensively sort of fades away. The pitching staff may surprise some people, but it also has the potential of going the other way too, and being completely awful, which is pretty disconcerting. Overall, I’ll be much more surprised if the O’s get closer to the 85-win total that they reached last season than I would be if they were one of the worst teams in the AL in 2014.

Jordan: The Seattle Mariners will disappoint this year. Robinson Cano and Felix Hernandez can only do so much for a team. Hisashi Iwakuma is a decent #2 pitcher, but the rotation is lackluster outside of him and Fernandez. The rest of the offense is composed of failed prospects, such as Dustin Ackley and Nick Franklin, and declining veterans like Corey Hart and Logan Morrison. While Cano surely made a splash, I don’t see the Mariners doing much in the AL, probably finishing fourth in the West, only above the Houston Astros.

Question 4 – What player do you expect to have a breakout season?

Shelby: Avisail Garcia – Chicago White Sox. I know Jose Abreu is the sexy pick for the White Sox, but I feel you have to have been in the MLB to qualify as a “breakout player.” Garcia is finall entering a season with a middle-of-the-order spot in line for him, and expect the 6’4″ 240 do it all 22-year-old to take full advantage on a team that should be fun to watch, at least offensively.

Domenic: In the eyes of many, Castellanos’ star lost a bit of its luster last year. After batting well over .300 with ease in his first two professional seasons, Castellanos was up and down at Triple-A in 2013, ending the season with strong numbers rather than great numbers. Any disappointment, though, was misplaced at best, or an example of scouting the stat line at the very worst. In addition to being very young for Triple-A (having turned 21 just before the season began), the International League is generally pitcher-friendly (his production was actually 21% above league-average, by wRC+), and Castellanos was learning a new position largely on the fly. Moreover, Castellanos showcased more power (his home runs and ISO were career-bests), improved his walk rate, slashed his strikeout rate, and continued to make line drive contact to all fields. This is a player with a 70 grade hit tool (on the 20 to 80 scale, 50 being average), and the potential for 60 grade power, and he is ready for the show. And he will show that talent this year, as my pre-season pick for Rookie of the Year.

Ran: As if the Tigers need any more help, I can see Rick Porcello putting together an All-Star season. Apparently posting career-highs in K/9 and GB% while having the 2nd best BB/9 of his career wasn’t enough to satisfy the Baseball Gods, because somehow Porcello’s ERA wound up at 4.32, though his FIP was 3.53 and his xFIP was 3.19. Having Jose Iglesias as his SS for a full season should surely help, as will Cabrera’s move from 3B to 1B. Porcello really started throwing a curveball only last season, and according to FanGraphs, threw it 16.5% of the time, more than any non-fastball pitch. The increased use of the curveball may lead to even better strikeout numbers, and assuming he continues keeping the ball on the ground and not putting too many runners on-base, it’ll be hard to imagine his results being once again so much worse than his peripherals suggest they should be. If I had to predict, I’ll say that Porcello finishes the season with over 170 IP, an ERA no worse than 3.30, with over 7 K/9 and under 2.2 BB/9, while once again being amongst the league-leaders in GB%.

Jordan: My “breakout” player is David Freese. While Freese was a relatively household name a while back, he fell off significantly last season. He was traded in the offseason to Los Angeles in exchange for outfielder Peter Bourjos. It was a fair swap for both sides – St Louis needed a solid defensive outfielder, and Los Angeles needed someone to play the hot corner. I think Freese can rediscover his stroke from a few years back and help out this Angels team tremendously.

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