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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

2014 Major League Baseball Preview - American League

While technically not a preview as the season is over a week old, The Daily Hat Trick, as always, tosses in its two bits on the upcoming MLB season, starting with the American League. Teams are listed by division in their expected order of finish.

American League

A.L. East

Tampa Bay Rays - It is a shame that one of the best run organizations in baseball with one of the best managers in baseball in Joe Maddon has one of the lousiest fan bases in baseball in terms of attendance. Nonetheless, expect the Rays to be in the pennant race discussion throughout the entire 2014 season. This team is loaded from top to bottom - pitching and hitting - but especially the pitching.

One area of concern is the youth movement in the starting rotation. Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi round out the bottom of the Rays' rotation. Between them, they had 32 career starts heading into the start of the season.

Baltimore Orioles - The acquisition of Nelson Cruz from the Rangers at DH is going to deliver a burst of power to the O's lineup. Their pitching remains a big question mark. Their bullpen has been a potential source of heartburn for several years now. However, with Ubaldo Jimenez in the #2 spot in the rotation, manager Buck Showalter should seek an endorsement deal from Tums or Rolaids.

Which Jimenez can the Orioles expect? He has been consistently inconsistent throughout his career. His performance in his spot in the rotation could be make-or-break for Baltimore this season.

Boston Red Sox - The defending World Series champions made a big pickup in luring veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski away from the Chicago White Sox. Still, this team is not getting any younger, particularly in the starting rotation. Can this pitching staff grind through another long season and have the Sox in position to repeat come October? I don't think it is likely, but I would never shortchange manager John Farrell after the job he did last season.

New York Yankees - The Yankees have a lot of their eggs in the Japanese import basket, as in 25-year-old rookie pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. Their pitching rotation is otherwise old with a lot of question marks. Picking up outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran will provide some life to the batting order, but at what cost? This team is not getting any younger while spending a fortune on veteran players past their primes.

Making matters worse, this team will be without Alex Rodriguez for the entire season. Like him or not, he's a far cry ahead of the bunch of people playing 3rd base for the Yankees this year that most fans have never heard of.

Toronto Blue Jays - The only pitching that this team will be doing will be its repeated hissy fits from getting smoked night in and night out. There may not be a worse collection of free agency busts, has beens, and unknowns in the majors than there are on the Jays pitching staff.

Yankees fans should temper their expectations for Derek Jeter's swan song. 1
A.L. Central

Detroit Tigers - Notwithstanding the trade of Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers, we can just hand the A.L. Central over to them now...again. There is an obvious loss of power from his (effective) replacement, third baseman Nick Castellanos (Miguel Cabrera moved from 3B to 1B). Still, the Tigers have the best player in the game in Miggy Cabrera.

They also have the best one through five starting rotation, in my opinion. At age 39, Joe Nathan is still among the elite closers in the game. Their young bullpen has as much upside, short and long term, as any in the game. And the Tigers' everyday position players match up well against any of the other 29 teams in the majors.

It is World Series or bust in Motown.

Kansas City Royals - This team has steadily improved in each of the last three years. Apparently it plans on filling in the gaps with an, "out with the old, in with the new," philosophy. Five of the Royals eight everyday starters have four or fewer years of service in the majors, most age 25 or under. Not a single member of their entire bullpen has more than five years of service. However, their rotation is loaded with experience, anchored by "big Game" James Shields.

I don't expect this team to be playing in October, but is is not beyond the realm of possibility.

Cleveland Indians - Great hitting is important but pitching is the difference between winning and losing in baseball. The Indians have a lot of guys who can hit. Their rotation is unbecoming of a playoff team. How they reached the postseason last year with their motley crew on the mound is beyond me, but don't expect that lighting to strike twice.

Ace pitcher Justin Masterson is going to have to win, win, win, no matter what when he gets the ball for this team to have any chance of keeping chase with the rest of the American League. Also, how Nyger Morgan performs in his return (did not play in 2013) after centerfielder Michael Bourn returns from the DL could be a difference maker in how far the needle moves for the Tribe in 2014.

Chicago White Sox - Raise your hand if you aren't a White Sox fan and can name three or more of their eight everyday, position starters! I didn't think so.... No, Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko don't count; they're designated hitters.

Can you name anyone in their middle relief staff? No? Their starters are respectable enough to keep them out of the cellar this year. That's enough to keep the Southsiders ad the kings of Chicago baseball. It is sort of like being the big fish in an empty tank.

Minnesota Twins - Phil Hughes was their big offseason pickup? Seriously?!? They can't be trying to pull a "Major League". They just got a new stadium! Were any of their everyday starters even born the last time this team won a World Series in 1991?

The awards keep piling up for Cabrera. 2
A.L. West

Texas Rangers - I expect a dogfight between these guys and the Oakland A's in the West this year. Picking up Prince Fielder was huge. Their starting rotation is loaded, with Alexi Ogando, good enough to be an ace on some rotations, being relegated from the rotation to the pen. The rest of the middle relief staff could be a weak spot for this team during the season. However, they are in capable hands in the 9th inning with Joakim Soria as their closer, assuming he is healthy and can revert back to form from his years with the Kansas City Royals. Big "if"...big potential if it works out.

Oakland Athletics - The pitching is awesome. The power hitting is really good. Their problem, as it has been for several years, is hitting for average. This is going to be a problem for them in close games and in the postseason, should they advance that far. Still, expect the A's to be in the race all the way through September.

Los Angeles Angels - Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. A decent batting lineup with underachieving starts, a good starting rotation, and a devil-may-care bullpen will not bring an American League pennant to L.A..

First baseman Albert Pujols, especially in light of his sluggish start to this season, is officially a red flag and on "free agency bust watch" if he cannot turn it around this year. Josh Hamilton began showing flashes, late last year, of what made him a coveted free agent after the 2012 season. So far, it has carried over into the first few games of this season.

Expect continued greatness from young, superstar outfielder Mike Trout. However, the Angels' plan of Pujols, Hamilton, and the same shaky bullpen should not get them much farther than last year - out of the playoffs. The x-factors are Pujols and Hamilton. Can Pujols shake off the injury bug and find himself again? Not a solid proposition at age 34, coming off of back-to-back declining seasons. Hamilton...there could be promising something there.

Seattle Mariners - "King" Felix Hernandez will continue to rule the mound. The Mariners' pitchers have not been the source their problems during the past several seasons. They can't hit. Bringing in second baseman Robinson Cano for a king's ransom was a step in the right direction. However, he is going to need an MVP-caliber season for the M's to deliver the run support that their pitchers will need to stay in any kind of postseason race. I do like the acquisition of Corey Hart at DH, if he is fully healthy, but it won't be enough.

Houston Astros - Their youth push could pay dividends at the plate in 2014 but their pitchers are sub-par. The belly laugh? They brought back a member of their 2005 National League championship roster. Was it Andy Pettitte? No? Was it Roger Clemens? No. They brought back a member of their middle relief, "Bridge to (Brad) Lidge" - who was at the peak of a mediocre career back then - to be the closer!

Chad Qualls is terrible.

Prince Fielder could be the missing piece of the puzzle for the Rangers. 3

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