* There was actually fear aplenty. Oh Christ, the fear...
1. Tampa Bay Rays. Don't believe the backlash, gang: the notion of having the Yanks and Sox once again contesting the division is traditionalist comfort food, but this bunch isn't going away. I steadfastly think that Joe 'Hipster-Glasses' Maddon has the best group of talent in baseball, and what is rarely factored in when analyzing their chances for the coming season is that Carl Crawford, probably their best player (with apologies to Evan Longoria, who will be amongst the best anywhere within 365 days or so), had a dreadful season last year. He has something to prove, and now has Pat Burrell batting behind him, which, by the way, may turn out to be the best acquisition of the offseason (no more heckling Philly fans). The rotation goes four-deep, with Shields, Kazmir, Garza, and Sonnanstine. Wait, what am I saying - a measly four? Factor in David Price, who will be in South Florida within a month or so, and they throw out five total studs. I think Dan Wheeler will end up with the closer role ahead of vet Troy Percival due to injury/attrition, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Not to spoil my playoff picks tomorrow, but expect an epic Rays-Tribe battle at some point during the coming postseason.
2. Boston Red Sox. Harrumph. Alright, so they'll be good: Nicky Lau* will sleep well this year, since even though the lineup is suspect, the forty-six-deep rotation will head to the rescue. Isn't Brad Penny anchoring the rookie ball rotation or something, considering that they have nowhere else to really stick him? Sporting! Complaining aside, this crew is clearly superior to the Yankees: they've becoming acclimatized to the Manny void, and good-guy Jason Bay has largely won over Fenway in his place. Granted, there are health questions about Big Papi and Lowell, but those circles can be squared. On the mound, I'd happily go to war with Lester, Beckett and Matsuzaka, plus they have Smoltz (who is apparently amazing in the room, no matter what he physically contributes) and Buchholz waiting in the wings. Papelbon is obviously one of the best closers in baseball, but an underrated pick-up was Takashi Saito, who I've always really liked: move over, Scot Shields, as the premier AL setup guy. In sum, they'll battle the Rays to the bitter end, and emerge with the Wild Card spot.
*Cameo from a Red Sox fan friend of mine.
3. New York Yankees. Simply put, I'm not sold. I could easily see A-Rod missing more time with phantom injuries, the lineup is creaky from age, and AJ Burnett is a monstrous ass who doesn't show up unless a new contract is in the offing. Joe Girardi deserves better than this soap opera, as I think he's a great manager. I believe Torre was the perfect alpha figure for this bunch, as he's a 'reluctant' celebrity, while Girardi is more of a nuts-and-bolts baseball man, which doesn't alway succeed with the pinstripes. To wit, he thrived with underfunded Florida. Blame Billy Martin. I sincerely do think CC Sabathia will come through this year with 17-22 wins, but it won't be enough: Wang will end the year as the second starter, displacing Burnett, but the overall hijinks will reduce the team to 80-85 wins. Girardi is fired, destined to take a job in a smaller market where he can thrive.
4. Baltimore Orioles. Nick Markakis is one of my favourite players in the league to watch, but I would still charitably give them 75 wins at best. Matt Wieters will be up soon, which is kind of a drag, since my guy Gregg 'Grumpy' Zaun is catching in the meantime. I see Canadian TV analysis in his future: fuck, in the interest of full disclosure, he very well could be my favourite player. Bedraggled intro to this preview aside, they're in the wrong place at the wrong time: if they were stationed in, say, the NL Central, I could see them achieving .500, but it's perpetual cannon-fodder status in the AL Ea$t. Pitching-wise, I'm not entirely sold on George Sherrill as the closer, and think Chris Ray will retake the gig. The rotation is pretty goddamn shaky: Adam Eaton and Mark Hendrickson are both pencilled in, so do a few dozen rosaries for O's fans tonight.
5. Toronto Blue Jays. Le sigh. As mentioned above, my full team preview will be up within a few days, so, in two words: lost season. Vernon Wells is an idiot. Aaron Hill and Doc Halladay rule. JP Riccardi getting shit-canned is my World Series.
1. Cleveland Indians. I'm going off the board with this pick: not only do I think that the Central is Cleveland's to lose, but they'll win more than the 85-90 games that are generally prescribed to take the division. As a matter of fact, bet the Tribe to challenge for home-field throughout the ALDS and ALCS, partly because the AL East titans will be cannibalizing each other, but mostly because I just think this group is going to succeed mightily. First of all, Grady Sizemore is my MVP pick: he put up a gaudy 33 homers and 38 steals last year, and should have a better Travis Hafner (who everyone has written off) batting behind him this time around. Victor Martinez will have a bounce-back year, Kelly Stoppach will pick up where he left off, Mark DeRosa epitomizes 'solid,' and Shin-Soo Choo will build upon a stellar WBC, plus Asdrubal Cabrera will flash a nice glove at second before being granted honourary citizenship in Narnia after the season thanks to his name. Pitching-wise, I'm a big Fausto Carmona fan, and think that the loss of Jake Westbrook for the first couple of months will easily be mitigated by Cliff Lee and the emergence of Anthony Reyes. People expected big things of Cleveland last season and were bitterly disappointed, hence the lukewarm prognostications this spring. I'm buying low and planning on selling high, though: those moon-sized expectations were a year early, but look for the Indians to come through in ought-nine.
2. Minnesota Twins. Ron Gardenhire is the shit. Please, you have no comeback. He looks like a slovenly tool-and-die representative, but possesses one of the best minds in the game: hell, you know you've made it when people have to hesistate a second to remember who Tom Kelly is. I'd see Minny challenging Cleveland for the division title, only Joe Mauer's health is a major uncertainty at this point, plus the rotation is greener than T. Boone Pickens' born-again environmentalist persona. That said, Francisco Liriano is going to be in the Cy discussion, plus Glen Perkins is a total sleeper. Joe Nathan is back as well, which is never a bad thing. In terms of hitting, Justin Morneau will get his .300-25-110 from routine, Delmon Young came on in the second half last year, and Denard Span has a chance to establish himself as one of the league's better leadoff hitters. Mauer or no Mauer, they're still going to bump their heads on 85 wins.
3. Kansas City Royals. In spite of crummy crowds during the lean years, I think that Kansas City is a great baseball town, so it's fun to see a young bunch the area can rally around this season. Trey Hillman is a nice manager, and he handles young players remarkably well (prima-donna, Jose Guillen veteran types not so much, but who fucking cares). The endorsement from Bill Simmons has kind of led this bunch to fashionable pickdom; I don't see them in the postseason this time around, but they should challenge the Twins for second, and have a really sporting chance at cracking .500. It starts with the pitching. First of all, Joakim Soria in the 'pen: I honestly do think he's the best closer in the majors presently. Zack Greinke has always had Robert Kron syndrome for me*, and I think he's going to be spoken about in the company of the top five AL pitchers this season. Gil Meche is never pretty, but he'll get his 12-15 wins. I think that Alex Gordon will experience a mini-breakout at third this year, plus I just dig the look of this lineup. It appears destined to manufacture runs efficiently, what with Crisp and DeJesus at the top, and reliable Gordon and Jacobs to knock them in.
*Robert Kron syndrome: Back in the early 1990s, the Vancouver Canucks had the titular Czech winger in the fold, and he was noticeable every shift, making a pest of himself against the top line of the opposition. Alas, he rarely scored, so his contributions weren't particularly chronicled. It was much the same with Greinke throughout the first few years of his career: he always owned the Jays, but didn't have spectacular overall stats.
4. Detroit Tigers. This is just wholly depressing: apparently attuned via osmosis to the great state of Michigan's sinking fortunes, the team is essentially carrion. On the bright side, I do see them topping their 74 wins of last year, but Dave Dombrowski essentially assembled this unit like a sports neophyte lumping together a stacked video game team. Miguel Cabrera is going to battle the aforementioned Grady Sizemore tooth-and-nail for the MVP, Granderson and Mags are rad, plus Justin Verlander is going to have a bounce-back season, but the rest of these retreads? Please. I'm a believer in Armando Galarraga (most outlets have him greatly regressing), but have no faith in Bonderman, Edwin Jackson, or Nate Robertson. Fernando goddamn Rodney is the closer, and Joel Zumaya (the should-be finisher) is hurt yet again. Is Jim Leyland still allowed to smoke in the dugout in these enlightened times? Probably not, but we should grant an exception: the man is going to need a good butt or two this year.
5. Chicago White Sox. These guys are due to combust. Kenny Williams is one of the top five GMs in the game, and Ozzie Guillen is...Ozzie (read: wildly entertaining), but I just see it all going pear-shaped this season. Jim Thome is ancient, Paul Konerko is visibly on the decline, and Jermaine Dye has seen his best days. One thing I do like about this club is their young pitching (Floyd, Danks, et al), but they aren't at the point where they can right the ship. Carlos Quentin will rebound after the hothead incident that possibly cost him an MVP, though.
1. Los Angeles Angels. Halo-bashing seems to be de rigeur this offseason, and the detractors do have some nice ammo. Key position players are aging and brittle, they've lost K-Rod, and the rotation is being held together with gum and twine. I appreciate the negatives, but, conversely, they're still in a weak division, have a nice bullpen, an above-average lineup, and the best manager in baseball roams the dugout. As per usual, the remainder of the clubs in the division will serve as a mere annoyance: the only obstacle this team faces, and it may be formidable, is injuries. John Lackey's return date is uncertain, and apparently Ervin Santana could be on the receiving end of a visit from Tommy John.
2. Texas Rangers. Andruw Jones somehow made this team, when he should realistically either be eating competitively or shagging flies in Rancho Cucamonga or some such outpost. Making matters worse, his roster spot was secured when the club cut blood-and-guts scrapper (and beloved ex-Jay) Frank Catalanotto. Fine, fine work, Jon Daniels: in the spirit of his predecessors, I can hear him yowling 'ah can't quit yew, washed-up veterans.' Questionable personnel decisions aside, I kind of like this team. I've been a big fan of Jared Saltalamacchia since he was brazenly stealing ABs from my then-fantasy-catcher Brian McCann in Atlanta a couple of seasons ago as a rook, Michael Young is one of the more underrated hitters of the last five years (I maintain that his stats would be strong in any ballpark), Josh Hamilton is the real deal, and their second baseman is named 'Elvis.' Taylor Teagarden looks like a beast, and should spell Saltalamacchia at catcher plus DH fairly regularly. Those assets aside, please note that there are no kind words extended towards their pitching staff. I'm not sold on Vincente Padilla, Kevin Millwood is Kevin Millwood (a workmanlike innings-eater, nothing more), and the remainder of the rotation is unproven. I do think that Frank Francisco is going to do a nice job as closer, though.
3. Oakland Athletics. Picking this hastily restocked bunch to make noise is roughly on par fashion-wise with auto-tune abuse in pop music (seriously, that Kanye record is amazing, but he has a lot to answer for), but something smells funny here. Yeah, they snared Matt Holliday and Orlando Cabrera, plus the washed-up husks of Giambi and Nomar, but the rotation is a septic tank. Justin Duchscherer, the one starter you could plausibly take home to meet your mother, starts the year on the disabled list, and last year's pleasant surprise Dana Eveland nearly pitched his way to Sacramento during spring (and yes, I did draft him on my fantasy team, goddamn it). My best guess is that they'll be within a few games of .500 in July and decide to blow the thing up and start anew. Trevor Cahill is an interesting pitching prospect, though, and should get a good look.
4. Seattle Mariners. Yeah, I gave second and third thoughts to the idea of this team somehow being a 'sleeper' of sorts in this division, as I quite like the M's and want them to succeed, but fuck it: they're just terrible. As if the potpourri of has-beens and never-will-bes fouling rookie skipper Don Wakamatsu's lineup card aren't egregious enough, Ichiro starts the season on the DL with a bleeding ulcer (which probably surfaced when the enormity of his woeful teammates hit him), plus for some insane reason they're starting Jeff Clement in the minors this season. On the positive side of the ledger, I've always been an Adrian Beltre fan, as his stats are more than respectable considering he plays 50% of his games in hitter-unfriendly Safeco. And, even though it's going to cost Clement playing time, only a scrooge would complain about the return of Ken Griffey Jr. It's blatantly designed to throw the fanbase a bone, but so what? They aren't going anywhere this season, so it's neat to have the favourite son come home for a farewell lap. I plan on hitting Safeco as per usual sometime this summer, and seeing Junior in M's colours one last time should be a trip.
AL Wild Card: Boston.
AL MVP: Grady Sizemore, Cleveland.
AL Cy Young: Roy Halladay, Toronto.
AL Rookie of the Year: Taylor Teagarden, Texas.
AL Manager of the Year: Trey Hillman, Kansas City.
Back tomorrow with the Senior Circuit, playoff picks, and record of the week. It won't be done until after the 'Nucks game, though. Yeah! Oh, I forgot one of my favourite facets of baseball season: going to Vancouver Canadians games at Nat Bailey Stadium. I have Wednesdays off this summer, so should be bleacher-bumming at many a nooner, especially since my place is within walking distance of the park. Let it begin!