2006 Preview: Predicting the Junior Circuit

With four innings in the books before the rains came, Opening Night is well under way. And that means baseball is back. Today, I’ll offer up my American League predictions. Tomorrow, I’ll use my crystal ball to predict the National League.

American League East

1. New York Yankees
2. Boston Red Sox (Wild Card)
3. Toronto Blue Jays
4. Tampa Bay Devil Rays
5. Baltimore Orioles

The American League East could be in for a minor shake-up below the top spot. While the Yankees are old, aging, and overpaid, it’s hard for me to pick against this team. Randy Johnson threw 225 innings last year, and he seems to be ready to reach that mark again. This time, however, he’s comfortable. While Johnny Damon may not be worth the long-term deal the Yankees gave him, at least in 2006, he’ll lead a fearsome offense. The Bombers also have some solid relief pitching to back up Mariano Rivera this year. Kyle Farnsworth should fill in adequately for Tom Gordon, and Octavio Dotel will end up as the best off-season signing this year. By mid-year, Yankee games could be seven inning affairs as they were in 1996.

For a while, I had the Blue Jays in second, but A.J. Burnett’s recent injury scare highlights how vulnerable this team is. Their infield defense is subpar, and Bengie Molina threw out just one would-be base stealer this spring. Ted Lilly or Burnett could go down at any time. While B.J. Ryan ought to justify the long-term deal, every other piece of this team needs to fall into place for them to succeed. While the right combination of good health and good luck could make the Blue Jays this year’s 2005 Chicago White Sox, odds are not on their side.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, are engaged in a stealth plan of rebuilding. They have an awesome array of arms and some position players in the farm system as well as a young core of players to complement Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. However, the other pieces don’t quite fit in Fenway. Mike Lowell is past his prime, and J.T. Snow will probably be used too often. Alex Gonzalez is as close to an automatic out as anyone else in baseball. Keith Foulke, Curt Schilling, David Wells, and even Josh Beckett’s blisters are big question marks. While the Sox could win the division, I think the wild card is more likely. And by June or July, some of the young arms should be starring in New England.

It’s hard to believe, but the Devil Rays were among the best teams in baseball following the All Star break last season. After eight seasons of mediocrity, the Devil Rays may be ready to make waves. While they won’t hit their stride until about 2008, their young, dynamic offense should scare any opposing pitcher in the American League. Carl Crawford, Johnny Gomes, Julio Lugo, and Jorge Cantu lead the hitters. But the organization’s young pitchers lag behind. This season could be a turning point for Scott Kazmir as the young stud tries to find his control. The Devil Rays will have no problem scoring runs but they will have problems preventing runs.

Finally, we get to the Orioles. Can Leo Mazzone turn around the pitching staff? Sure. Can he figure out what to do with Jeff Conine, Kevin Millar, Luis Matos, and Javy Lopez? Not at all. Reports out of Spring Training say that Miguel Tejada hasn’t been himself this spring. Whether it is lingering feelings from the Rafael Palmeiro blow-up last year or his lack of B-12 vitamin shots, no one knows. But Orioles fans should be in for a long season.

American League Central

1. Chicago White Sox
2. Cleveland Indians
3. Minnesota Twins
4. Detroit Tigers
5. Kansas City Royals

Nothing new here really. While no one picked the White Sox last year, they are now the Central’s team to beat in 2006. The stellar rotation that lead the team to a title last year is back, but this year, Javier Vazquez has replaced Orlando Hernandez. While Bobby Jenks is not yet a sure thing in the bullpen, the Pale Hose have enough live arms to fill that gap. Jim Thome, if healthy, will provide another big bat to complement Paul Konerko, and Brian Anderson should shine in center. While they won’t reach 99 wins, they should capture another division title.

The Indians came oh-so-close to one of the greatest comebacks in baseball history last year only to fall short in the last week of play. This season, things don’t look as promising. While the young core is in place (and mainly locked up in the long term), the Indians pitching took a hit. Paul Byrd and Jason Johnson probably won’t duplicate Scott Elarton and Kevin Millwood’s contributions. An early injury today to C.C. Sabathia could be costly as well. Bob Wickman is always a little shaky out of the pen. If early season struggles plague Aaron Boone, I would expect to see Andy Marte sooner rather than later.

The Twins have the pitching to compete but the offense lags. Johan Santana should win the Cy Young Award this year (as he should have last year). Francisco Liriano should join Scott Baker in the rotation sooner rather than later. But the Twins are relying on Tony Bautista at third base, and early reports are not high on his hitting or fielding. Justin Morneau is due to break out, but he could be a dud. Jason Kubel’s health is a question mark but he could compete for Rookie of the Year. While many pieces are in place, the Twins just aren’t as solid as the Indians or the White Sox.

Once upon a time, the Tigers were more than a blip on the baseball landscape. These days, though, the outlook is grim in Detroit. A heavy pitching park doesn’t do the Tigers offense justice. The team has the offense to compete, but right now, with a costly injury to Todd Jones, they are looking at a closer-less beginning of the season. This team is a hodge-podge of oft-injured veterans and fringe players. Fourth place for another season and a shot at 81 wins is the upside.

Finally, the Royals. The Royals are bad. They have back-up infielders in the starting lineup and number four or five starters fronting their rotation. Their young arm – Zach Greinke – left the team for unknown reasons, and their reliable closer is injured. While the All Star game may land in Kansas City in a few years, the only stars on the field this year will be visiting.

American League West

1. Oakland Athletics
2. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
3. Texas Rangers
4. Seattle Mariners

The Oakland A’s should return to the postseason this year. Whether they make it past the divisional series is a toss-up. Their rotation is well-balanced, and a healthy Rich Harden to go with Barry Zito, Esteban Loaiza, Danny Haren, and Joe Blanton will carry them far. Milton Bradley is a perfect fit for OBP-minded Oakland, and Frank Thomas could be the steal of the off-season. While Jay Witasick should fall to Earth this season, the rest of the bullpen looks great. The A’s are looking at 90 wins and a legitimate shot at a World Championship.

The Angels are pesky. The Angels are annoying. They win when they shouldn’t and they have a seemingly endless supply of top-rated middle infield prospects. However, the Angels should see their 2006 season end before the playoffs. This team is relying on hobbled players – Garret Anderson and Vlad Guerrero – as well as a few old guys and one former ESPN blogger – Tim Salmon. Jeff Weaver gave up 42 hits in just 25 innings this spring, and Bartolo Colon threw just six innings. While the Angels are waiting for their kids to grow up, this year will be an off-year in Anaheim.

No team is more fun to watch than the Rangers and no team save for the Devil Rays has less pitching to go with an explosive offense. The Rangers will turn to Kevin Millwood and fly-ball pitching Vincente Padilla to anchor their revolving-door rotation. Adam Eaton’s injury was a big blow to this team. Led by Mark Teixeira, they will score runs, but they will surrender them in bunches as well.

Was it just 2001 that the Mariners won 116 games? Since that year, it seems that the M’s have lost their golden touch. Jamie Moyer will start his 54th Opening Day and the rotation behind him has never lived up to its potential. The one bright spot is Felix Hernandez, but as the Mariners fall out of contention, they would be wise to save the youngster’s arm. Adrian Beltre should rebound from an awful 2005, and Jeremy Reed could finally have his big year. But this team is clearly at the bottom of the American League West.

Playoffs

Divisional Series
A’s over Red Sox
Yankees over White Sox

American League Championship
Yankees (but it goes to seven games)

MVP
David Ortiz

Cy Young
Johan Santana

Rookie of the Year
Nick Markakis

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