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Friday, July 18, 2014

2014 Major League Baseball - American League - All Star Break

The second half of the season kicks off today. Yesterday we discussed the National League. Today, we'll talk about the A.L.. We previewed the American League at the start of the season and there have been a few surprises.!

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.

Describing the first half of the season as a "bitter disappointment" would be an accurate description of the Rays' season so far. That said, never, ever count out a team managed by Joe Maddon. The next two weeks will determine the fate of the 2014 Rays' season and the future of ace pitcher and former Cy Young winner David Price (9-7, 3.23 ERA, 164 Ks).

The Rays have won 13 of 18 and, excluding a catastrophic stretch in June in which they lost 14 of 15, they have been as good as their A.L. East rivals. The decision of whether or not to trade David Price needs to be made by the July 31 trade deadline. A waiver deal after the deadline may have too much uncertainty for the Rays and other teams involved. 

The Rays' starting pitching, sans Price, is mediocre and their closer-by-committee plan has yielded the underwhelming results one may expect. This team will have ZERO chance down the stretch without Price. So whether or not this team has a pulse at the end of the month will answer a lot of short an long term questions about this franchise and its key players.

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.

If I sing manager Buck Showalter's praises a thousand times, I cannot do it enough. This team has held its contention in the East together with Popsicle sticks, super glue, sluggers, and a tight bullpen. Their starting pitchers aren't "good enough" by any on-paper standard yet they are currently in first place. This team reminds me of the 2012 Orioles team, which Showalter steered to the playoffs, far above expectations.

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.

When you're the defending World Series champs, even in a baseball-crazed town like Boston, you get a bit of a break when you're sniffing the cellar at the All Star break. Their starters are solid but their middle-relief will never get a Rolaids endorsement opportunity and the bottom half of their batting order may as well be swinging rubber garden hoses instead of wooden bats. 

Manager John Farrell says his team isn't throwing in the towel yet. Let me get that for you, Johnny boy! 

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.

The Yankees were exceeding expectations, in the chase in the division race up to this point. Ace pitcher Masahiro Tanaka (12-4, 2.51 ERA, 135 Ks) is sure to be gone until September (elbow), assuming he does not need Tommy John surgery. With average to above-average but not game-changing hitters, a starting rotation that I would describe as anywhere from "mediocre" to "crap" (excluding interim ace Hiroki Kuroda), and an overworked bullpen, I don't see how the Yankees keep pace in this highly competitive division race. 

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.

It isn't hard for me to admit I was wrong when I was completely wrong. And I whiffed on this team in the first half of the season. For a spell, the Blue Jays were the hottest team in baseball. The pitching staff has completely outperformed my expectations so far this year. In addition, they have a legitimate MVP candidate in Edwin Encarnacion (.277, 26 HR, 70 RBI).

Still, the Jays appear to be cooling off and while I don't expect a second half collapse, this team is a team whose core strength is hitting, not pitching. They have already given up the first place standing in the division that they had enjoyed for most of this season. Considering the age and track record of the pitching staff, I think the Jays are going to have trouble getting back into first place and staying there.

The decisions (or non-decisions) about one man, David Price, could determine the balance of power in the MLB pennant races. 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.

The Tigers are going to win this division, but the bullpen had better start demonstrating its upside or Motown will be in for another October disappointment. While the Tigers are collectively tearing the cover off of the ball, the starters can not work the innings needed for this team to win a World Series without more consistency and tightening in the pen.

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.

This team is only 2.5 games back in the A.L. Wild Card chase. They held the lead in the division, albeit for about 24 hours. The Royals have a real chance to break their 29 year playoff drought. Starting pitching, clutch hitting and plate discipline has gotten this team to this point. 

It needs to continue for K.C. to play into the month of October. This team does not have the power in its lineup to compensate for any extended gaps in the pitchers' performance. It has no room to take its proverbial foot off the gas.

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.

The bats in the lineup will keep the Tribe discussion-worthy into August and perhaps September, but the pitching staff is just not good enough to get this team into the playoffs.

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.

Bright spots: Pencil in first baseman Jose Abreu (.292, 29 HR, 73 RBI) for American League Rookie of the Year. Shortstop Alexi Ramirez (.282, 8 HR, 41 RBI, 45 R) is demonstrating that he is a legitimate star. The starting pitchers have not only been "respectable", but "good". The bullpen is a black hole, sucking the life out of any shot the Sox have for contending in 2014. A major overhaul of the relievers will put the White Sox in the American League playoff year.

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?

That they probably aren't going to lose 100 games is a moral victory for this team and its fans.

After spending his fair share of time on the hot seat in Kansas City, Ned Yost is another legitimate Manager of the Year candidate. 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. 

Father Time is undefeated and untied but the Injury Bug is in the Final Four every year. Their Disabled List looks like an All Star lineup (Prince Fielder, Matt Harrison, Alexi Ogando, and Derek Holland, for starters). The only good news for Manager Ron Washington is that he has a pretty valid excuse for being deep in the cellar this year. Except for ace starting pitcher Yu Darvish (8-5, 2.97 ERA, 142 Ks), he's working with a triple-A rotation and a ragtag bullpen. 

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.

The acquisition of ace Jeff Samardzija (3-8, 2.78 ERA, 116 Ks) and starter Jason Hammel (8-6, 3.01 ERA, 107 Ks) via a recent trade with the Chicago Cubs has put this team in the driver's seat in the A.L. West. They're bashing the ball all over the park. The fact that Athletics General Manager and President of Penny Pinching Billy Beane traded three promising prospects (who cost very little) for two established veterans with seven figure salaries tells me that he thinks this team can win it all this year. I'm inclined to agree. The West is the A's division to lose.

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.

Albert Pujols (.279, 20 HR, 64 RBI) and Josh Hamilton (.295, 5 HR, 26 RBI, 46 GP) are back in the game and so are the Angels. The bullpen was this team's Achilles heel last year. They're turned it around in 2014 and are holding their weight and then some. This is an excellent team poised to challenge the two-time defending division champion A's. Late season transactions will determine whether the Angels are going to enter postseason play as a division champion or a Wild Card team. 

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.

The Mariners were red hot for a spell, but they will not be a serious pennant contender until they get some pop in their batting order. Acquiring shortstop Robinson Cano (.334, 7 HR, 57 RBI) was a big step in the right direction. Talk of reaching the playoffs is not far fetched but even if they can reach the postseason (which would be significant progress for this team) I would expect a swift exit. 

Their pitchers are awesome. Their hitters are just not good enough to win this division or the pennant. Period.

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.

Not only do they have a real chance to lose fewer than 100 games for the first time since 2010, but they have a chance to not finish last. It sounds like sarcasm, bot the long-suffering fans of this franchise, myself included, know that it is a significant step forward for this team. The power in their batting order is developing rapidly. 

All Star Shortstop Jose Altuve (.335, 2 HR, 27 RBI, 41 SB, 49 R) is budding into a potential superstar. The young arms in the starting rotation are developing ahead of schedule. And while the bullpen is still, collectively, a knee-slapping joke, closer Chad Qualls (1-1, 1.95 ERA, 10 saves/12 attempts) has not been terrible!  

The trade for Jeff Samardzija may be what pushes Oakland over the top in the A.L. West. 3
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