2015 American League Rundown — Previews, Predictions and Promises About Every Team
It is a time of change in the American League. The balance of power has shifted, with the talent and financial strength that was once concentrated in New York, Boston and Los Angeles now spread throughout the league.
A mixture of factors has led to this sea change in the sport. Baseball's collective bargaining agreement, which allocates money more evenly around the league, combined with booming television revenue in most markets and the rise in smarter, analytics-driven management has created a new landscape, one in which the longtime doormats known as the Kansas City Royals are your defending American League champions. This year, though, they may be just the fourth-best team in the Central Division. (Sorry, Twins fans, it's gonna be a long season.)
All of this isn't meant to suggest that the Yankees, Red Sox and Angels are in any real trouble (well, maybe the Yankees, who are very old), just that playoff spots are harder to come by these days for those former postseason staples. Even with the addition of the second wild card, you can expect the competition for those precious slots to be fierce and unpredictable. The Angels probably have the best shot -- they led all of baseball in wins last year, after all -- but if Mike Trout doesn't have a standard, out-of-this-world Mike Trout year, if he gets hurt or if he goes from superhuman to merely incredible, Seattle and Oakland have the talent to jump right past them.
Let's take a look at each division, then we'll make some postseason predictions, which probably won't come true. (Hey, predictions are hard, especially about the future.)
Standings last season:
- Baltimore Orioles, 96-66
- New York Yankees, 84-78
- Toronto Blue Jays, 83-79
- Tampa Bay Rays, 77-85
- Boston Red Sox, 71-91
The Orioles overachieved a bit last season, and the losses of Nelson Cruz (and his league-leading 40 homers) and Nick Markakis don't bode well for an offense that was barely above league average last year. But manager Buck Showalter is some kind of wizard, always getting his team to play better than they should. The O's were an MLB-best 14-6 in extra-inning games and 32-23 in one-run games last year. That'll be hard to repeat, but Showalter's teams somehow find ways to eke out the close ones.
Speaking of overachieving last year, the Yankees somehow managed 84 wins despite giving up more runs than they scored. They are unlikely to be able to repeat that dubious feat. The Bombers' strengths are their defense (Didi Gregorius won't make any fans forget Derek Jeter's bat, but in the field, he'll be oceans better) and bullpen, even with the loss of closer David Robertson. But bullpens can be great one year, terrible the next; better to rely on solid offense and a strong starting rotation -- and the Yankees have neither.
The Blue Jays made a huge splash early the off-season by acquiring all-star third-baseman Josh Donaldson from the Athletics, bolstering an already-powerful offense. Their 3-4-5 of Jose Bautista-Edwin Encarnacion-Donaldson is as good as any in baseball. Add new catcher (and Canadian native) Russell Martin and his .402 on-base percentage and you have an offense that can bail out what figures to be a wildly inconsistent pitching staff hurting from the season-ending injury to 2014 breakout Marcus Strohman.
And now for a team about whom we have no clue what to expect: the Tampa Bay Rays. Will they be good? Terrible? Mediocre? David Price and Ben Zobrist are off the roster, and manager Joe Maddon and general manager Andrew Friedman are also gone, which would seem like a death sentence for this small-market constant underdog. But the Rays have long been a team full of surprises, and in a down year for the A.L. East, this team -- which still has superstar Evan Longoria and a deep starting rotation -- may once again make everyone scratch their heads by ending up near the top of the standings.
The Red Sox massively upgraded this off-season, adding Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to an offense that was 11th in runs scored last year. The rotation, though, is not good at all, even with the additions of Rick Porcello, Wade Miley and Justin Masterson. Boston has had its ups and downs the last few years (last place in 2012, World Series champs in 2013, last place again in 2014). They likely won't repeat as cellar dwellers in 2015, but they're going to have to win a lot of 8-6 and 10-7 games to stay in contention. Maybe David Ortiz has one more magical season left, maybe Hanley Ramirez won't be a disaster his first year in left field, but more likely the Sox'll need to add a better pitcher (or three) if they want to make the postseason.
- Blue Jays
- Red Sox
This might be the toughest division to figure out. The champ may only reach 86 wins, which means that, really, any of these five teams could finish on top and it wouldn't be all that surprising. But once again, the Wild Card won't be coming out of the East.
Standings last season:
- Detroit Tigers, 90-72
- Kansas City Royals, 89-73
- Cleveland Indians, 85-77
- Chicago White Sox, 73-89
- Minnesota Twins, 70-92
Do the Tigers have another first-place finish left before their aging offensive core finally starts to falter? Can they replace Max Scherzer? Will they ever put together a competent bullpen? It's probably dumb to bet against Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, but unless those two get some support from the rest of the roster, getting back to 90 wins will be tough. Adding Yoenis Cespedes helps. A full year of David Price will, too. But closer Joe Nathan is 40, and there are three other teams in the Central with their eyes on deposing Detroit. The Tigers still may come out on top, but they'll need a lot to go their way.
Everyone's favorite story last year, the Royals finally made it back to the postseason for the first time since 1985 (!), coming within one game of winning the whole thing. They did it largely on the strength of a best-in-baseball bullpen and an outfield that seemed to catch everything. But No. 1 starter James Shields moved to San Diego, and the front office did nothing to augment a middling offense. K.C. had a magical run to the Fall Classic, but catching lightning in a bottle is hard enough to do once, let alone repeat.
The Indians came up just a bit short last season, but this is a young, talented, up-and-coming group of players -- particularly Cy Young Award-winner Corey Kluber, who notched 269 strikeouts, and left-fielder Michael Brantley, who finished third in MVP voting. The Tribe may also add stud-prospect Francisco Lindor in at shortstop sometime this spring, depending on when management thinks he's ready. Cleveland doesn't do anything poorly; they're at least mediocre at just about everything. They just need to take a few steps forward -- score a bit more runs, win a couple more one-run games, improve their record in interleague play -- and they could top this division.
The White Sox had one of the most active off-seasons of anyone, adding closer David Robertson, starter Jeff Samardzija, DH Adam LaRoche and left-fielder Melky Cabrera to a team that finished a dismal 73-89. The question is, was it enough? A pitching staff with a top three of Chris Sale (2.17 ERA), Samardzija and the underappreciated Jose Quintana matches up well with anyone in the A.L.. The offense, led by Jose Abreu and his .964 OPS, should supply enough power. But their depth is limited, so injuries could be devastating, and the bullpen must cut down on the walks. Robertson will help, but he'll only throw 60 or so innings all year.
As for the Twins, well, there's always next year. Fortunately Minnesota has a talent-packed farm system, but at the Major League level things don't look particularly bright. The offense is average at best, and their pitching is in dire need of help. Last off-season's free-agent pitcher acquisitions were great (Phil Hughes) and terrible (Ricky Nolasco); this year's version, Ervin Santana, will need to impress if the Twinkies want to climb out of the cellar. Can second-baseman Brian Dozier repeat his stellar 2014? He and third-baseman Trevor Plouffe and center-fielder Danny Santana comprise a solid core, but Twins fans probably have to wait a year or two for minor-league reinforcements before they can dream of another division title.
- White Sox
It should be another down-to-the-wire race in the Central this year, with four teams all having a fair shot. The Tigers are probably the most talented, but every year they get older, and you have to wonder when the wheels are gonna fall off. The Indians are a trendy pick this season (Sports Illustrated has them as World Series champs), and for good reason.
Standings last season:
- Los Angeles Angels, 98-64
- Oakland Athletics, 88-74
- Seattle Mariners, 87-75
- Houston Astros, 70-92
- Texas Rangers, 67-95
The Angels finally put it all together last season, finishing with the best record in baseball, but then they got promptly swept out of the ALDS by the upstart Royals. Losing their top starter, Garrett Richards, no doubt hurt, as he was on his way to serious Cy Young contention, but getting a full year from him in 2015 will be key if they hope to repeat at A.L. West champs. L.A., of course, has Mike Trout, by far the biggest asset in the whole sport, along with Erick Aybar, Albert Pujols and Kole Calhoun (sweet name, brah) for a solid offensive (and defensive) core, but losing second-baseman Howie Kendrick stings. Still, the Angels figure to be in the hunt for best team out west, but this year they could face some stiff competition.
The A's dominated Major League Baseball for the first four months of last season, before stumbling badly in August and September, barely even making the playoffs. Then, like a microcosm of their season, they dominated the Royals in the Wild Card matchup, only to blow a four-run lead in the eighth inning. So what do you do with a team like that? If you're G.M. Billy Beane, you change everything -- trade away your best position player (Josh Donaldson) and let your best pitcher (Jon Lester) walk in free agency. Somehow, though, Beane has again assembled what looks like a contender, adding Ben Zobrist from the Rays and Billy Butler from the Royals. The pitching should be solid, if not dominant, putting the A's in position once again to fight for an A.L. West title.
In Seattle, fans are licking their chops. After barely missing out on postseason action last year, the Mariners added some serious thump (Nelson Cruz and his 40 dingers) to protect Robinson Cano, still one of the top few players in the game, and Kyle Seager, who looks like he'll be a star at third base for a long time. The 1-2 combo of Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma can hang with anyone, and the rising Tajiuan Walker and James Paxton make the M's rotation one of the most formidable in baseball. If their offense can merely hold its own (and it should), the Mariners will be tough to beat -- a smart choice to make their first postseason appearance since 2001.
What to say about the Astros? This is a team that won just 70 games last year, but that was a gigantic leap forward for a franchise that won no more than 56 games in the three seasons prior. The rebuilding is winding down, at long last, and the 'Stros actually added a few nice free agent pieces, like shortstop Jed Lowrie and relievers Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson. That's not going to be enough, though, so young'uns like right-fielder George Springer and some of the prospects fighting out of their talented farm system (like Carlos Correa) need to make some big strides forward if Houston wants to seriously battle the big three ahead of them. This may not be the year that happens, but soon, Astros fans. Soon. Until then, Jose Altuve sure is fun to watch.
Last year, the Rangers thought they had a playoff-caliber squad. At least until the the injury bug turned into an injury T. rex and devoured their season. Things were starting to look up again -- a full season of Prince Fielder, a rotation full of actual Major Leaguers -- but then staff ace Yu Darvish tore an elbow ligament, ending his season before it even began. Still, bounce-back seasons from Shin Soo Choo and Elvis Andrus don't seem like big risks, there's Adrian Beltre being the man at third, plus the arrival of Yovani Gallardo to add muscle to the staff -- all of these things could lead to a renaissance in Arlington. Or maybe not. Probably not. It's a lesson in how a team can go from really good to really bad in almost no time, and for no particular good reason.
Both Wild Card teams could come from the West, though more likely just one (like last year). Whoever wins the division will have to earn it, though, as the Mariners, Angels and A's all look to be among the league's better squads. Seeing high-quality baseball in the state of Texas will probably have to wait at least another year, but we've heard people there mostly like football anyway.
Division Champs: Blue Jays, Indians, Mariners
Wild Card Game: Angels defeat Tigers
Division Series: Mariners defeat Indians, Angels defeat Blue Jays
A.L.C.S.: Mariners defeat Angels
National League preview coming Friday.