MLB 2012 Predictions: American League Division Races Will Come Down To Pitching

In the American League, things aren’t always what they seem.

Last season, the Boston Red Sox spent over a quarter of a billion dollars reloading their lineup for what they thought was a World Series run. Many (this writer included) picked them to win their division, their league, and the World Series.

Like most who made this knee-jerk reaction, many still brought up the fact that their pitching wasn’t as dominant past Jon Lester as it could have been, and while no one could have predicted their epic meltdown, many saw their pitching as something to be concerned about and proved prophetic. While Lester and Josh Beckett pitched well, Buchholz appeared just 14 times, Jon Lackey turned into a pitching machine set to “straight,” and Tim Wakefield was  given one to many chances to make his knuckle ball dance.

That turned a team that was 83-52 from April to August into a team that went 7-20 (4-13 from their rotation with a 7.08 ERA) and out of the playoffs on the last day. With 90 wins.

Added emphasis is being placed on starting rotations across major league baseball. While developing or signing a slugger is still the flashiest thing to do, signing or trading for a guy who can help you on the mound down the stretch (Doug Fister anyone?) can be critical to a team’s success.

Last season the Minnesota Twins, who have had extended success since 2001 with just one losing season, six playoff appearances, and the opening of a new ballpark took a step backwards in 2011 going 63-99. A majority will attribute that to Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau playing a combined 151 games. While that kind of production is hard to make up for, things aren’t made easier when your pitching staff uses nine different starters and eight of them have an ERA north of 4.30 and five have ERA’s over five.

There are your teams that you had pegged outside of the playoffs from day one. Kansas City, Seattle, Oakland, Baltimore, and Chicago were just a few who never really got into the conversation.

Others like Toronto, Cleveland, and LA were your middle group that you expected to make things interesting, but knew they were missing something.

Then there were the playoff teams.

The Yankees spent their off-season looking for ways to frugally improve their team which won 97 games last season (tops in the American League). They found a way, by trading for Michael Pineda (at the expense of top prospect Jesus Montero) and convincing Hiroki Kuroda to pitch on the East coast they created depth in their rotation.

Texas, meanwhile, is adding to their stable as the defending two-time league champions. They invested more than $100 million dollars in Japanese star pitcher Yu Darvish. Even though C.J. Wilson signed with the Angels, they got younger in their rotation while possibly adding the same level of talent.

In Detroit, the big news was first bad news as they found out Victor Martinez would be lost for all of 2012 due to a knee injury. Not long after, the good vibes returned to the Tigers as they swooped in and signed Prince Fielder to fill the void. He’ll join Miguel Cabrera, who willingly moved over to third base to accommodate Fielder, in a potent left/right middle of the Tigers order.

Tampa Bay, one of the teams involved in a whirlwind final day of 2011, brings the most young talent on offense and on the mound. The only major signing was bringing back Carlos Pena, but Matt Moore and another year of Desmond Jennings should only add to the young talent the Rays have.

As we know, new seasons bring increased challenges for teams that thrived a year before. Boston cleaned house and look poised to bounce back, Toronto has a team in the American League East that looks ready to compete with the three-headed monster of New York-Boston-Tampa, Detroit is the favorite but Minnesota is known for surprises…and it feels like I’m forgetting something.

Oh! The best player on the planet, Albert Pujols, is now playing for the Los Angeles Angels. Texas/LA just got that much more interesting.

Predictions:

        East

  1. New York Yankees– It is a pick your poison division with this bunch, but I like the Yankees to win the dog fight. They have a number of different non-Jeter related reasons they could pull this out for the second consecutive year. Reason number one is Robinson Cano, who I see as one of the most important players in the game. He’s the complete package, and with him in the middle of a lineup that includes Teixeira, Granderson, and Brett Gardner they have the makings of a run scoring machine. They still have Mariano Rivera finishing games, and he shows no signs of slowing up. Their rotation has the most experienced depth and I look at that as an important factor as well.
  2. Boston Red Sox (Wild Card)– The Red Sox now know the regular season is 162-games. Carl Crawford now knows what it is really like outside of the friendly confines of Tampa bay and Bobby Valentine, despite his quirks, is a manager who will get the most out of these players. Be it by putting all attention on him and his antics, challenging the status quo, or just being the smart baseball man he is. They have the second best lineup in this division (let me explain) behind Toronto as far as pure power. They are the best professional collection of hitters in the American League, led by Adrian Gonzalez. I see their pitching as a question mark still, and with the recent injury to Andrew Bailey not helping matters in a bullpen without reliever-turned-starter Daniel Bard they may have some issues.
  3. Tampa Bay Rays– Tampa Bay has a collection of young talent that most teams dream about in a decade right now. Their pitching staff is overflowing with major league ready arms, led by David Price, and they have more on the way. Matt Moore is just about everyone’s pick for American League Rookie Of The Year, and Desmond Jennings has shown why the Rays were sad, but confident after the departure of Carl Crawford. Joe Maddon has become one of the top skippers in the league and legendary for his motivation tactics. So why do I have them third? Of the teams in this division (excluding Baltimore) their bullpen is something to be greatly concerned about. Kyle Farnsworth closing out games isn’t the worst thing in the world, but not ideal. Fernando Rodney was seen as a good deal, but this is a guy who has a career ERA above four at age 35. After last season’s late run some would call me foolish for not placing them higher. Remember, however, the type of monumental collapse it took for these guys to win the Wild Card. That type of fortune doesn’t happen every year.
  4. Toronto Blue JaysToronto has put together quite the team. Brett Lawrie is the latest to get a starting spot on the diamond following J.P. Arencibia the year before. They have a collection of young hitters poised to break out in a big way. They are led by Jose Bautista, who has become the most feared hitter in the game over the last two years. The problem I have with Toronto is they don’t put together many quality at-bats, they don’t hit for a high enough average and they strike out a ton. They also have a rotation that is improving and the additions in the bullpen make for an exciting development. I pick them third primarily because of track record. I feel Toronto is one year off from that “next step.”
  5. Baltimore Orioles– Where do you start? Pitching isn’t good, lineup lacks depth, their best players (besides Markakis) aren’t stars anywhere else. Buck Showalter has his hands full with this project. My guess is he won’t even be managing to see the fruits of his labors a la 1996 when he was replaced by Joe Torre the year after leading the Yankees to the playoffs. They went on to win four titles in five seasons. Citizens of Baltimore can only dream of that scenario.

Central

  1. Detroit Tigers- Addition of Fielder brings added pop where Martinez was lost. Will need Alex Avila to continue progress from a season ago. Verlander-led rotation looks formidable with Scherzer, Porcello, and Fister following.
  2. Minnesota Twins- Healthy Joe Mauer, Healthy Justin Morneau, and the addition of Jamey Carroll make the Twins a “Gardenhire-esque”  team once again. Question, of course, is whether the pitching will be enough.
  3. Chicago White Sox- Adam Dunn struggled in first season on the South side. Look for him to bounce back at least slightly. Alex Rios still isn’t showing much as of this spring (.214 BA, .258 OBP) and have to wonder how long this will last. Gordon Beckham is another that needs to bounce back in an offense whose only consistent piece is Paul Konerko. The rotation has potential but Peavy and his health will be the X-factor.
  4. Kansas City Royals– The Royals can hit with anyone in the league. Their issue will be if Bruce Chen (yep) and co. will be able to keep Kansas City in enough games to contend. Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas are players that are must see tickets.
  5. Cleveland Indians– Depleted rotation with the legal issues facing the man formerly known as Fausto Carmona. Derek Lowe is new addition, but a return to the American League won’t be kind to him as he has struggled with ERA’s in the four’s last three seasons. Grady Sizemore gets another chance to prove he’s healthy and capable to play everyday.

West

  1. Los Angeles Angels– Albert Pujols. I could just leave the explanation at that. For the sake of conversation I’ll add C.J. Wilson, Dan Haren, and Jared Weaver. Now I’m done.
  2. Texas Rangers (Wild Card)– It was a nice run by Texas the last couple years, but I think Anaheim is too strong to overcome the loss of another proven member of their rotation. In this case to their division rival. I still see the Rangers as a team with considerable talent and upside, but for a team that (I feel) was better a year ago on the mound to lose C.J. Wilson while gaining Neftali Feliz (unproven in the starters role) and Yu Darvish (unproven) is a gamble.
  3. Oakland Athletics– Kind of a dark horse pick for me out West as they are improving. Jemile Weeks is as exciting as any player in the game and Yoenis Cespedes is already paying dividends. Rotation is young but solid, Brett Anderson starting season on DL will hurt tremendously. Gambling on Bartolo Colon (who looked good in his first start this season) was an intriguing call; if Manny Ramirez can provide some semblance of former self in this offense after his suspension they could make noise down the stretch.
  4. Seattle Mariners– Tremendous coup this offseason turning Michael Pineda into Jesus Montero. Jury is still out on his ability behind the plate, but his handling of a bat will pay dividends with a lineup that includes fast improving Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak. Ichiro looks like he’s up to his old tricks with 4-for-4 performance in his first game of the 2012 season (4-for-9 in the series). Felix Hernandez continues to live up to his nickname (“King”) on the mound but will need help from Jason Vargas and Kevin Millwood. The latter of which is my main cause for concern.

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