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Tigers looking to usurp champion BoSox, and other AL musings
The Red Sox reigned as 2013 World Series champions, but repeating is easier said than done. Here's a look at the American League ahead of Monday's Opening Day, with teams in order of projected finish within their respective division.
1. Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays are the division's most consistent winner since they ditched the "Devil" in their moniker six seasons ago, having won at least 90 games five times in that span. With 2013 AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers in the heart of their lineup for a full season, plus All-Stars Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist, this lineup will score plenty to make life easier for stellar starting pitchers David Price, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb.
2. Boston Red Sox
The defending World Series champs will return to the postseason; they might even defend the division crown. But things went so well for this team a year ago that a small step back is reasonable. Expect Clay Buchholz to put up a more mortal ERA than the 1.74 he posted in 16 starts last season, and one can't rely on aging John Lackey and Jake Peavy to be consistent year-to-year. At least the lineup is still stacked, even without Jacoby Ellsbury.
Speaking of Ellsbury, he's a clear upgrade for this team, as are Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran. They'll miss Robinson Cano, but having a presumably healthy Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira back is a solid trade-off. On the mound, CC Sabathia should bounce back and Michael Pineda will endear himself to New Yorkers, at long last. Keep expectations in check regarding Masahiro Tanaka. If he posts an ERA under 4.00, it's worth celebrating.
4. Baltimore Orioles
As great as Chris Davis was in 2013, that's likely the peak of his performance. He'll still put up big numbers, but there will be no repeat 50-homer season in Baltimore. Nelson Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez were savvy additions that will keep the O's in the thick of the division race, but they'll probably be on the outside looking in by the end of September.
5. Toronto Blue Jays
As bad as 2013 was for a Blue Jays team that expected to compete for a World Series, they managed to improve their win total by one. That still added up to just 74 wins. This season could be worse, given that they failed to make any significant additions. Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Reyes will perform, but it won't add up to many victories.
1. Detroit Tigers
Owners of the division's most complete starting rotation and reigning two-time AL MVP Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers should finally be capable of running away with their third straight AL Central title after two consecutive years of cutting it close. The trade which brought in Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder ought to be an upgrade overall, and Joe Nathan gives them a reliable ninth-inning man again. Count on Detroit playing well into the postseason again.
2. Kansas City Royals
After finishing above .500 for the first time in a decade, the bar has been raised for the team with the longest active postseason drought -- they last made it when they won the World Series in 1985. They'll miss Ervin Santana and his impressive 2013 performance, but the lineup is better with Norichika Aoki and the currently-ailing Omar Infante in it. Ace James Shields is in his walk-year, so he should be terrific. The Royals will be relevant in September.
3. Cleveland Indians
After surging to a postseason berth last season, the Indians will have trouble repeating their 92 wins. They're talented enough to be above .500 again, at least, thanks to solid but unspectacular lineup led by second baseman Jason Kipnis. Justin Masterson will carry the rotation after Ubaldo Jimenez bolted in free agency, and manager Terry Francona has to be hoping either Corey Kluber or Danny Salazar fills Jimenez's void.
4. Chicago White Sox
This team has nowhere to go but up after 63 wins in 2013. That said, the Chisox are going for a youth movement and figure to have trouble cracking the top three in the division. Chris Sale remains a top-flight lefty ace who gives them a great chance to win every fifth game. Jose Abreu's signing will pay off right away for this lineup, but this team will struggle to score runs on a regular basis.
5. Minnesota Twins
Minnesota wisely ended Joe Mauer's days as a catcher to prolong his career. Watch him win a batting title again as he gets the chance to play every day at first base. Adding Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes to the rotation is a big boost for a team that had no starters of note before. Even top prospect Byron Buxton, a possible midseason call-up, will begin the season on the disabled list.
1. Oakland Athletics
Quietly, the A's have won back-to-back division titles thanks to some stellar pitching and an underrated lineup. Most of the principle hitters -- such as 2013 MVP candidate Josh Donaldson -- are back, but the pitching will look different thanks to departures and injuries. At least ailing starter A.J. Griffin will be back soon to help young Sonny Gray and resurrected veteran Scott Kazmir. They'll win a few less games, but still take the division title.
2. Texas Rangers
This lineup is stacked. It's possible they'll have as many as five hitters with 20 or more home runs, including offseason acquisitions Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo. The injury bug already has claimed projected Opening Day starting pitcher Yu Darvish, as well as Jurickson Profar, Matt Harrison and Derek Holland. Expect a lot of high-scoring games early, but the Rangers should have it together in time to push for a postseason spot.
3. Los Angeles Angels
Baseball's most disappointing franchise over the past two seasons is running out of goodwill. The signings of high-priced veterans Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton have backfired, and only WAR wunderkind Mike Trout has kept this team relevant during that time. Other than Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, the rotation doesn't instill confidence. This a boom or bust team, but odds are in favor of the latter.
4. Seattle Mariners
Robinson Cano instantly makes this team better, but not enough to be a player in this division. They're still a few hitters away from making a run at the AL West elite. At least they still have top-end starting pitchers Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, the best one-two punch in the division. An 80-win season or better should be a surprise to the Pacific Northwest.
5. Houston Astros
They've had a year to get acquainted with American League baseball, but it won't do much to elevate them from the AL West basement. Trading for Dexter Fowler during the offseason gives them a capable leadoff hitter with decent speed and some pop. Their pitching is still a mess, though. Scott Feldman is the only starter who might post an ERA of less than 4.00. Hey, at least their farm system is stacked.