Tuesday, April 18, 2006

AL Preview, part II

Out of the AL Central and the AL West only two teams will make the playoffs and a third will be in an end-of-season dogfight with the RedSawx and either the Yanks or BlowJs for the wild card. That's too bad, because no fewer than six of the remaining nine AL teams are decent enough to contend for the playoffs.

Start in the AL Central, where the defending champs added Jim Thome to their lineup for more pop and more baserunners (the ChiSax were near the tail end of the league in OBA). I don't credit the acquisition of Javier Vazquez much unless the Palehos use him as starter #5 and consider shifting Brandon McCarthy to closer (Bobby Jenks is certainly not a known entity). Credit where it's due: Ken Williams, the Sax GM, thought the Palehos could get Jose Contreras to show the stuff that wowed the scouts before the Yanks signed him in the '02-'03 offseason and Williams ended up with a #1 starter for just some pocket lint.

The Indians and Twins are intriguing. I still don't trust the Indians' pitching because Sabathia blows both hot and cold, Westbrook and Lee tend toward inconsistency (less of that with Lee), and losing the AL's ERA leader simply won't help. The Indians do have some very good players and enough talent to make a big run at the division. Twins are in a similar situation. With Mauer and Morneau healthy, the Twins should more than make up for the mid-level production that Jacque Jones provided. They still have a pitching staff notoriously parsimonious with walks. And they have one of the top closers in the league who has a decent setup group ahead of him. I expect more from the Twins this year than they provided in an injury-plagued '05.

The Royals are a lost cause, but the Tigers have some talent. Detroit is the best team in the AL to be victimized by the overall ability of the league -- the Tigers would penetrate the upper half of the NL but won't do the same in the AL. I like the fact that Jim Leyland was peeved with their loss on Monday to the Indians even though it's early-season and expectations aren't high -- he'll raise them and possibly teach that young team something. One issue with the Tigers: a lot of soft-tossing lefty starters (Rogers, Maroth, Robertson).

In the AL West, the question for the A's is whether the acquisitions of Frank Thomas and Milton Bradley will raise the team's offensive ability more than the players will raise ire in the clubhouse. Both are notorious headcases. The rotation is very good if healthy -- if Rich Harden can pitch a full season, this team can win the division. Don't believe the anti-hype -- the Monk foresees no sophomore slump for reigning Rookie of the Year Huston Street.

The Angels had a net talent loss in the offseason: no Bengie Molina, losing Paul Byrd and Jarrod Washburn and replacing them with Jeff Weaver. This team did not win with offense last year, and the team is now a year older without any talent upgrades and a net loss in the pitching. That said, the Angels still have that killer bullpen that has won them consecutive AL West titles and netted a World Series in '02.

The Rangers and Mariners will bring up the rear, but the Rangers may have legitimate pretensions of self-belief in their own decency. They upgraded the rotation with Millwood and Padilla -- although the extent of that improvement will be limited by the launching pad that is The Ballpark come summertime. Adam Eaton is a nonfactor -- a guy who fits the "good young pitcher" physical profile, without the track record (poor ERA in the best pitchers' park in baseball whilst in San Diego). The Rangers' strength will again be their excellent lineup.

The M's should improve after plucking Washburn from the Angels and getting a full year from Felix Rodriguez -- a righty version of Johan Santana who has great native ability. Still, they lack enough pitching and guts (Pineiro, Meche and the DL brigade) to make a large dent in the AL West race. I wonder if they should just build their team like the 1980s Cards -- speed, speed, speed with one or two bangers. Watch the progress of the latest Japanese import for team Nintendo, Kenji Jojima -- a catcher who can hit well too.

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