AL 2011: Boston, Minnesota, Oakland look strong
The Junior Circuit will officially kick off its 110th anniversary season Thursday afternoon when the Detroit Tigers visit Yankee Stadium.
Last year, the Texas Rangers stunned the Yankees in the AL Championship Series to grab their first-ever pennant before bowing out to the San Francisco Giants in the World Series.
Here’s a look at how the AL’s three division races shape up for 2011 on the eve of Opening Day:
The additions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez made Boston, already armed with the league’s best rotation and a deep bullpen, favorites to grab what most consider the best division in baseball. In so doing, the Red Sox have also reduced the Bronx Bombers to a $205 million underdog — if there could ever be such a thing.
The Yankees return the highest-scoring lineup in the majors and a bullpen bolstered by the acquisition of setup man Rafael Soriano. But a shaky back end of the rotation will force the Yankees to settle for no better than their second consecutive wild card, especially if No. 2 starter A.J. Burnett can’t rebound from a disastrous 2010.
Tampa Bay lost Crawford, Soriano, Matt Garza and Carlos Pena after edging the Yanks for last year’s East title. Aging vets Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez may pay dividends as both are in something-to-prove mode, but Tampa will ultimately survive on its strong rotation, anchored by David Price.
Toronto will be heard from if slugger Jose Bautista continues to terrorize East hurlers, as 27 of his MLB-best 54 homers last season came against division foes. Scouts are raving about the progression of Blue Jays rookie starter Kyle Drabek, the key returnee in the deal that sent Roy Halladay to Philadelphia.
Baltimore manager Buck Showalter has been a master at building a winning program, only to watch others achieve greater success with what he’s left behind (e.g. the Yankees, Diamondbacks and Rangers). The division’s worst rotation will keep the Orioles in the East cellar for a fourth consecutive season.
Shooting for its third straight division crown, Minnesota expects to have Justin Morneau back in the Opening Day lineup with fellow former MVP Joe Mauer after the former missed the second half of last season due to a concussion. The Twins' Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano front a solid rotation for the reigning and future Central champs.
Seeking their first Central title since 2008, manager Ozzie Guillen’s Chicago White Sox are emerging as the sexy pick to return to the top of the division. If former Cy Young winner Jake Peavy can fend off the injury bug, the White Sox will push, if not surpass, the Twins in September.
Detroit always seems to make the Central a three-team race before fading late. The addition of designated hitter Victor Martinez should enhance an offensive attack that disappointed last year, and Tigers staff ace Justin Verlander hopes to build on his second consecutive strong campaign on the mound.
Kansas City traded its best pitcher (Zach Greinke), reportedly flirted with dealing All-Star closer Joakim Soria and is still waiting for second overall pick Alex Gordon to fulfill his potential as the next George Brett.
The Royals could avert a seventh last-place finish in eight years if Cleveland, loser of 93 games in 2010, continues its nosedive since dealing Cy Young winners CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee in 2008 and 2009, respectively.
Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson and Gio Gonzalez aren’t Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder just yet, but the exciting trio could lead the best rotation in the division to the first West crown for Oakland since 2006. Former World Series MVP Hideki Matsui is the main addition to a scrappy but underwhelming lineup that finished 11th in the league in runs scored last year.
Texas emerged as the AL’s biggest surprise in 2010, riding trade-deadline acquisition Cliff Lee to 90 wins and the brink of a world title. But Lee is gone from the Rangers and so is designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero, who signed with Baltimore. Adding Adrian Beltre to a lineup featuring MVP Josh Hamilton should help, but the loss of Lee will put extra pressure on C.J. Wilson to repeat his 15-win campaign of a season ago.
The L.A. Angels won three straight West titles before literally falling apart last year after Kendry Morales broke his leg landing on home plate while celebrating a walk-off homer in May. The slugging first baseman might start this season on the DL, but the Angels added former Toronto outfielder Vernon Wells for offensive depth after failing to land Crawford in free agency. Jered Weaver leads a starting five that could lift the Angels back into playoff contention.
Going nowhere fast, Seattle simply hopes to return to respectability under new manager Eric Wedge after losing 101 games a season ago. Reigning AL Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez will come up in trade rumors if the Mariners sink to the bottom of the division early. Look for the Yankees, snubbed by Lee this past offseason, to be front-runners for the 24-year-old right-hander.