2008 Major League Baseball Forecast—American League

AP Photo by David J. Phillip

American League East

1. Boston Red Sox

It’s more interesting (or at least less conventional) playing Devil’s Advocate about why the Sox *won’t* repeat as pennant winners. Practically everything went right last season: Papelbon’s shoulder held firm and Beckett’s blisters didn’t grow, and every rookie was off-the-charts good, from spunky Pedroia to no-hit Bucholtz to speedy Ellersby to the supreme set-ups of Okajima. Okay, so Dice-K was shaky and Ortiz was one-legged, and Manny couldn’t always be Manny at the plate and Drew was horribly inconsistent. The odds of those negatives repeating are greater than a reprise of the positives. I mean, Manny is 36, Papi can’t hit any better than last year even with two good knees, and Dice-K and Drew aren’t the kind of performers you entrust with the mortgage money. And Curt Schilling is toast, Mike Lowell is old…Okay, back to reality. They have the best balance of pitching depth and hitting depth in all of baseball. Their Vegas odds are the lowest on the board. As April dawns, they are the team to beat.

2. Toronto Blue Jays

Yup, the Jays will overtake the Yankees this season. Their starting rotation stacks up with anybody–Halladay a legit ace, Marcum and McGowan a pair of live arms coming into their own, and AJ Burnett an injury-prone stud at #4. Closer BJ Ryan’s elbow injury in early May actually fortified the bullpen for this season as Accardo, Downs and Janssen all stepped up–and now Ryan is fast on the mend. Meanwhile, outfielder Alex Rios is a budding star, Vernon Wells is due for a big comeback, and snagging the left side of Cards’ 2006 champion infield–3B Scott Rolen and SS David Eckstein–to go with great glove man Aaron Hill at 2B will make all those ground-ball pitchers on the staff happy and wealthy. The Blue Jays are ready to compete with the big boys.

3. New York Yankees

The George Steinbrenner-Joe Torre era is over, yet the roster looks distressingly similar. There’s a hell of a lot of pressure on young pitchers Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy to produce, because it’s hard to see how the Yankees improve enough to surmount the Red Sox and not get overtaken by the Blue Jays otherwise. Two-thirds of their batting order is in decline: Damon, Giambi, Abreu, Matsui, Posada, and yes, even Jeter (now 34). Ditto starters Andy Pettite and Mike Mussina and Mariano The Great in the pen. So, what, A-Rod is supposed to knock in *more* than 156 runs this year to make up the difference?

4. Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Even after jettisoning hot prospects Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes, their lineup is no longer a joke. Carl Crawford and BJ Upton are five-tool players, Carlos Pena can lose a third of his long-ball production and still hit 30 dingers, and there is some potent old (Cliff Floyd) and young (Evan Longoria) help on the way. But the starting rotation needs to quicken: Would-be ace Scott Kazmir is still teasing out his upside, Jamie Shields needs to show he can put together back-to-back solid seasons, and the Twins’ scouting staff isn’t in the habit of giving up someone like Matt Garza unless there’s a significant flaw in his makeup. Even so, you throw in former Dodgers hot prospect Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine as your #5 and that’s a talented rotation with nobody over age 25. The Rays are emerging.

5. Baltimore Orioles

Finally they rebuild in earnest, although trading Eric Bedard to Seattle was lunacy even if they did pluck a potentially great center fielder in Adam Jones out of the deal. Aside from nascent star outfielder Nick Markakis and Jones, there aren’t any uber-talented kids shoving the likes of Kevin Millar and Melvin Mora and Ramon Hernandez out of the way. And their pitching is wretched. When you can’t sell out Camden Yards any longer, you know you’ve been doing something very wrong for a pretty long time.


American League Central

1. Cleveland Indians

The Indians-Tigers and Red Sox-Blue Jays-Yankees both should be hotly contested races from wire to wire. While the Tigers retooled in a major way, the Tribe stood pat with a dignity and wisdom Twins fans will recognize. Their homegrown beef brothers CC Sabathia and Fausto Carmona are the league’s best 1-2 mound tandem, their bullpen took a quantum leap forward last season with the emergence of Betancourt and Perez, and back-of-the-rotation vets Westbrook and Cliff Lee will be healthier (physically and mentally, respectively) this year. At the plate, Grady Sizemore and Victor Martinez should be close to their glorious primes, Garko and Asdrubal Cabrera represent a promising new right side of the infield, and Casey Blake is unsung but effective. Even so, the Indians’ hope of outlasting Detroit may rely on Travis Hafner not imploding.

2, Detroit Tigers

Miguel Cabrera is a stone-cold hitter who might give A-Rod a run for his money in the power categories this year, but the other plum from Florida, pitcher Dontrelle Willis, is less of a sure thing. Too bad, because after certifiable ace Justin Verlander, the rotation is iffy. Jeremy Bonderman broke down last season, Kenny Rogers is on his third installment of borrowed time, and Nate Robertson is an innings-eating mediocrity (not that there is anything wrong with that). Oh, and the bullpen is weak, from middle relief right through to closer Todd Jones. Nevertheless, the Tigers will win a lot of 9-7 and 11-9 games. Pudge Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield are aging, and another 139 ribbies from Magglio Ordonez is unlikely, but with Cabrera and SS Edgar Renteria on board and Carlos Guillen moving to first base, there are no weaknesses in theTigers’ batting order.

3. Minnesota Twins

Although many pundits are picking the hometown nine 4th or 5th, I don’t think I’m drinking the local kool-aid. Morneau and Cuddyer should find a productive mean between their last two seasons and Mauer should be healthy enough for a career-best OPS–and if he’s not, let’s play him at 3B finally, okay Gardy? Delmon Young replaces Torii Hunter’s bat at a fraction of the price and is going to get better a lot faster than he gets more expensive. Yes, the staples of pitching and defense have taken a hit, even with the second coming of Mark Belanger, Adam Everett, taking over at short. Baker, Slowey and Bonser sounds better as a law firm than as the top half of a starting rotation–I haven’t forgotten about Livan Hernandez; I just don’t expect much beyond his workhorse capabilities yielding mediocre results. If the vegan might of Pat Neshek can hold until autumn and Dennis Reyes is more than a one-year wonder (two years ago) the bullpen will be a strength. But mostly I’m picking the Twins third because the White Sox are still dysfunctional and the Royals are ready to ascend yet.

4. Chicago White Sox

Ozzie Guillen doesn’t seem like a great manager for encores, The Pale Hose are a ballclub that need to tear it down to close to the studs, but instead they’re sticking with the Konerkos and Credes and Dyes and AJs and Thomes in order to have their foolish dreams rudely abused by the Indians and Tigers. Nick Swisher was a nice pickup from Oakland, and sooner or later room has to be made for Josh Fields at third over Crede, and the Cuban kid at second, Alexei Ramirez, could be exciting. But acquiring Orlando Cabrera for shortstop and keeping Javy Vazquez and Jose Contreras in the rotation means that the profane Guillen and company are in it to win it–and when they don’t, things will get ugly.

5. Kansas City Royals

The ceiling on erstwhile prospects like OF David DeJesus and C John Buck and P Zack Grinke seems to be lower than anticipated, but the Royals finally seem to be headed in the right direction anyway, thanks to former Atlanta exec Dayton Moore, a GM who is building for the long haul from the ground up. In Alex
Gordon and Billy Butler, KC has two dangerous young hitters, and Tony Pena Jr. flashes the sort of leather than can anchor an infield defense at shortstop. Until Moore can choose and develop a few more quality pieces, the Royals will rely too heavily on dime-store "stars" like pitcher Gil Meche and outfielder Jose Guillen to carry them. But it is not hopeless any more–or at least not for long.

American League West

1. Seattle Mariners

Casual fans may be surprised by this pick, but the Mariners are due. They’ve got one of the top five payrolls in the league, one of the 5 oldest rosters, won 88 games last year, and added arguably the best pitcher remaining in the AL, Eric Bedard, to their staff. Paired with King Felix Hernandez, 16-game winner Miguel Batista, and veterans Jarrod Washburn and Carlos Silva, the rotation is among the league’s elite–and their closer, JJ Putz, stands alongside Joe Nathan as the best in the game today. On offense, the M’s still have Ichiro, an underrated if aging hitter in Raul Ibanez, and decent run producers for their positions in C Kenji Johjima, 2B Jose Lopez (who will bounce back closer to his 2006 breakout) and 3B Adrian Beltre. Even middling seasons from 1B Richie Sexson and DH Jose Vidro would help. The bugaboo is defense, especially in the spacious outfield, where Ichiro will go on his own WeightWatchers plan trying to cover ground between Ibanez and pudgy Brad Wilkerson.

2. Los Angeles Angels

It seems every year some promising contender is snakebit by injuries, and having their top two starters, John Lackey and Kelvin Escobar, go down with ailments this spring points toward the Halos as this year’s hard luck story. Mike Scioscia is the best manager in the game at manufacturing runs, and with the signing of Torii Hunter to protect Vlad Guerrero in the batting order and the acquisition of Jon Garland for the rotation, the Angels clearly mean to go for it all in 2008. But can the likes of Jered Weaver, Garland and Ervin Santana hold the fort until Lackey and Escobar return?

3. Oakland Athletics

Oakland will exceed expectations and approach last year’s 76-86 mark despite a massive rebuilding campaign because, as usual, the front office can identify talent. Outfielder Travis Buck, 1B Daric Barton and C Kurt Suzuki are ready now, and OFs Chris Denorfia and Carlos Gonzalez aren’t far away. As placeholders go, 2B Mark Ellis and OF Emil Brown aren’t too shabby, and sooner or later the left side of the infield, Crosby and Chavez, have to be healthy on the same day–don’t they? More to the point, a rotation led by Rich Harden and Joe Blanton with lefty Dana Eveland coming over from Arizona in the Dan Haren deal is miles better than Texas, enough to keep the A’s out of last place.

4. Texas Rangers

What a mess. The pitching staff is heaped with underachievers like Millwood and Padilla and Jason Jennings, the vaunted left side of the infield–Young and Blalock–has seen better days, and they are counting on talented but star-crossed outfielders Josh Hamilton and Milton Bradley to give them a boost. The good news is that Ian Kinsler is a budding star at 2B and Jarrod Saltalamacchia projects as a Victor Martinez clone at C/1B. Avoiding 90 losses would be an achievement.