2012 Season Preview: AL Contenders

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(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

The Red Sox and Rays will be the Yankees’ primary competition this season, but the American League also boasts three more powerhouse teams. With only five playoff spots available for these six teams and greater emphasis placed on winning the division, it’s going to be a pretty hectic summer around the so-called Junior Circuit.

Detroit Tigers

The team that knocked the Yankees out of the ALDS last year got better this offseason. The Prince Fielder contract — nine years and $214M — is completely ridiculous, but he and Miguel Cabrera now form the best three-four lineup combo since David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez circa 2004-2006. A full year of Doug Fister makes then better as well, though I seriously doubt he will pitch as well he did after the trade over a full season. The Tigers won the AL Central by 15 games last year and only improved while no other club in the division got appreciatively better. I think the gap between Detroit and the second best team in the division is greater than any of the other five divisions by far.

As good as the offense and rotation is, the Tigers will probably field the worst defensive team in baseball if they stick with Cabrera at third base. Austin Jackson in center field is more than fine and Ramon Santiago will be solid on the days he plays, but otherwise you have bad glovemen at first (Fielder), short (Jhonny Peralta), third (Miggy), and the corner outfield spots (Delmon Young and Brennan Boesch). I don’t think they’ll be 2005 Yankees bad, but there are going to be a lot of balls in play not converted into outs that extend the inning and overly tax that quality rotation. With a shaky bullpen beyond cardiac closer Jose Valverde and dynamite setup man Joaquin Benoit, losing outs from the starting staff could be bad news. I just don’t think it’ll be nearly enough to sink their season.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

(REUTERS/Darryl Webb)

No team grabbed headlines quite like the Angels this offseason, who hired a new GM (Jerry Dipoto), imported an MVP candidate (Albert Pujols), and stole an ace-caliber pitcher away from their division rival (C.J. Wilson). The top four of the rotation — Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Wilson, and Ervin Santana — is the best of the game and the clear strength of the team. The defensive unit is solid overall and only figures to get better once Mike Trout wrestles playing time from Vernon Wells. With a favorable home park, the Halos should be among the best run prevention units in all of baseball.

On the other hand, the lineup around Pujols is sneaky bad. Howie Kendrick is a very good hitter and the return of Kendrys Morales would be a significant addition, but Wells, Torii Hunter, and Bobby Abreu are teetering on the edge of disaster. They’ll score enough runs, but it’s not a powerhouse offense. Scott Downs and Jordan Walden make for a fine end-game tandem, but the rest of the bullpen is retread city, I’m talking Jason Isringhausen, LaTroy Hawkins, and Hisanori Takahashi. Rich Thompson is quite underrated, however. Starting pitching depth is also an issue beyond top four, with prospect Garrett Richards and the former prospect Jerome Williams the best bets for the fifth spot. The Angels made some major improvements this offseason, but Pujols and Wilson mask some serious deficiencies.

(REUTERS/Darryl Webb)

Texas Rangers

Call me a homer if you want, but the two-time defending AL Champs are the only club that can give the Yankees a run for their money as the most complete team in baseball. They did take a gamble by replacing a known quantity in Wilson with an unknown but potentially great hurler in Yu Darvish, but they do have pitching depth to spare. Alexi Ogando and Scott Feldman would be the third and fourth starters for most teams but are Texas’ sixth and seventh starters behind Darvish, Derek Holland, Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison, and Neftali Feliz. That is certainly enviable.

The bullpen also offers depth and high-end performance. Joe Nathan isn’t the guy he once was in the ninth inning, but he’s still effective and is more than capable of replacing Feliz as closer. Setup men Mike Adams and Koji Uehara will be around for a full season, and Ogando gives them another power arm. Michael Kirkman will likely replace the reliable Darren Oliver as the lefty specialist and is probably the weak link out in the bullpen. Feldman, Mark Lowe, and screwballer Yoshinori Tateyama fill out the rest of the relief corps.

Offensively, this team can do pretty much everything. They get power from Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre, and Mike Napoli. Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, and Craig Gentry provide the speed. Michael Young does a little bit of everything in the classiest of ways. Hamilton, Kinsler, and Gentry are strong defenders while Beltre and Andrus are flat-out elite. If you want to highlight the negative, it’s durability. Hamilton and Cruz never make it through a season without a DL stint and up until last year, the same could be said of Kinsler. Feliz hasn’t started in more than two seasons and Darvish will have to adjust to a five-day schedule and the Texas heat. The Yankees and Rangers are the two best teams in baseball as far as I’m concerned, and you’re free to quibble about who’s first and who’s second.

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Mailbag: Belt, Wade, Twitter, Big Base Stealers
2012 Minor League Rosters
  • http://fendersonandhampton.com Cuso

    Detroit will win that division hands down. I don’t buy the theory that they’re appreciably better with the addition of Fielder, though. They lost V-Mart, remember. How big a difference in WAR is that, really? 1.0? 1.5?

    Verlander is awesome. But can he repeat THAT season?

    The defense speaks for itself.

    Is Fister really going to extrapolate a good 2 months over an entire season?

    Delmon Young? Because he’s going to show up now?1

    Is Alex Avila really an All-Star catcher?

    Valverde isn’t going 47-for-47 again.

    Several Tigers look to be due for regression years. The only one it would seem could offer MORE would be Max Scherzer…. and possibly Rayburn.

    They’ll win the Central, for sure. But markedly better? Definitely not.

    • j6takish

      You need to factor in that they are replacing Brandon Inges negative value at 3b with an elite player in the 6-8 WAR Range, also they aren’t getting 400 PA’s of negative WAR from the corpse of Magglio. Peralta had a career year and is likely to regress. I’m not sure about Avila, his BABIP was exceptionally high but his power and walk rate are for real and he only has one full year in the majors.

      I tend to agree that this team basically just paid 200mm to tread water and is on pace for around 92 wins again, but Illitch is also paying Fielder out his own personal finances so I guess that helps take the sting out of that contract. At least thats what I keep telling myself…

    • Ted Mosby

      Even if they aren’t significantly better they were a team capable of beating anyone in the postseason.

      • SevenAces

        Isn’t any team (not just the Tigers) capable of beating anyone in the postseason?

  • JohnC

    Fielder and Cabrera could be the most dynamic 3-4 duo since Ortiz and Manny

    • Ted Mosby

      If Fielder was in Detroit last year then those two had a season equal to Ortiz and Manny. Their wRC+’s were both in the 150+

      Just like Manny and Ortiz just minus the roids.

  • vin

    This got me thinking about the NL…

    6 best teams in the AL (in order): Yankees, Rangers, Red Sox, Rays, Tigers, Angels

    6 best teams in NL: Phillies, Braves, Reds, Cardinals, Brewers, DBacks

    Man the NL sucks right now. I’m not sure if any of those teams are better than their AL counterparts. The Phils are similar to the Angels in that they have an awesome starting rotation, good late game bullpen, and an inconsistent offense. The Cardinals lost Pujols and I have a hard time envisioning Berkman being as good as he was last year. Wainwright is back, but Carpenter is banged up. The Brewers lost Prince. Actually, I think the Braves are the only team from that group that will improve from last year. Heyward, Freeman, McCann will anchor them with some decent secondary players (Bourn, Chipper, Uggla). It wouldn’t surprise me to see them overtake the Phils.

    Hope all the parity-lovers out there enjoy the NL this season. There’s a ton of mid-tier teams (80-89 wins), and not too many doormats (Cubs, Astros). 4 teams could win the west, 3 teams are contenders to win the central, and the two best teams are in the east – with two other decent clubs (Nats, Marlins).

    It should make for an exciting close to the season, but pound for pound, the best baseball will be played in the AL.

    • Ted Mosby

      If the Angels are simialr to the 2011 Philleis with their 103 wins as their pythag then the Angels are the best team in the AL.

      • Havok9120

        I agree that his rankings are a bit off, but he got the teams right. And his overall point stands:

        The NL is just not very good right now.

        • vin

          Yeah, I had a hard time ranking the NL teams… I think the AL is pretty reasonable (combination of hunches and how teams look on paper). However, it wouldn’t surprise me if the order of the AL ended up being completely backwards. It would surprise me, though, if any other team made it in to the playoffs.

      • vin

        The Angels are similar to the 2012 Phillies in the way their team is constructed. Obviously the Phillies don’t have Albert Pujols. But then again, Halladay, Lee and Hamels are probably a bit better than Weaver, Haren and Wilson/Santana. Last season the Phillies were able to beat up on an overall weaker league… which speaks to my point that the best team in the NL isn’t any better than the top dogs in the AL.

  • vin

    If I understand the new playoff rules correctly, the two wild card winners can come from the same division. Therefore, it seems to me that Anaheim can be the spoilers this season. I expect the Yanks, Sox and Rays to be better than the Angels, but their records are going to suffer from playing each other (plus the Jays), while the Angels will get fat on the M’s and A’s.

    • Havok9120

      I think I’d expect all three ALE teams to be better than the Angels on paper, but I expect one of the three to underperform, and possibly significantly. Just a hunch I have.

      That said, you’re absolutely right about the state of the AL playoff picture for the next few years. 3rd place in the ALE will be fighting tooth and nail to keep up with a lesser team out west because of the unbalanced schedule. I’m just not sure that that will apply this year.

  • Alex S

    I agree with the fact that the 3 best teams in the American League are the Angels, Yankees and Rangers in no particular order. The Angels will be very good this year with Pujols (but an injury in Albert could seriously affect them), and the pitching staff 1 to 4 is the best in all Baseball. The Rangers is almost the same team as last year but the Yankees even though improve the pitching, I’m really worried about the offense. Jeter, Arod and Tex are declining in production. DH is a big weakness and we can’t rely only on Cano and Granderson to produce. These 2 are at their prime but the other starters Nick S, Gardner and Martin are just average offensively.

    • LiterallyFigurative

      I don’t worry as much about Tiex as most. I think moving him from 3 to 5 will give him more freedom to mash. His average might creep up a little bit, due to his work on leveling the swing, and I don’t see his counting stats suffering much. Still mid 30’s HR and 110 RBI.

      Ibanez is an issue, at least early on. And the injury bug with Alex is always present.

      I think Texas has the best team 1-9, when you take power, speed and defense into account. I’m not in love with the rotation, but will be fine.

      The Angels have a great rotation in terms of depth (second to Tampa). I’m not a fan of that offense, and wonder if Morales can be back to his 2009 level. Trumbo at 3rd would worry me too.

      Detroit has the 3-4 combo of death, but the defense might be scary bad. Can Valverde be that good again? I like the rotation.

      Boston has 4th and 5th starter issues, as well as a rebuilt pen of guys who haven’t done it in pressure situations. Offense won’t be an issue, and will mask the rotation issues for most of the season.

      Tampa has the best rotation, still strong defense and baserunning. But they have a below average bottom 3rd of the lineup, and have to hope that Longoria and Pena can be healthy, productive studs.

    • jjyank

      That last sentence is false. Swisher is above average with the bat, and Garnder’s speed also makes him above average. Martin was technically below league average production among all players in 2011, but he was above average offensively when only compared to other catchers.

  • MannyGeee

    As i look at this article, I have zero doubt in my mind if this was 2002 instead of 2012, that Yankees would have landed 2 of those three guys.

    Not sure if its a good or bad thing that they went 0-fer on those guys.

  • Knoxvillain

    I don’t see how the Angels are a powerhouse team yet. At least not until they prove it. They have a mediocre bullpen and a below average offense, even with Pujols. They have a great rotation, but that doesn’t mean anything if your bullpen can’t hold games and your team can’t score runs.

    Yankees
    Tigers
    Rangers
    Red Sox
    Rays

    Those are the top five. Only three of them are powerhouse teams, and the Rangers might not even be a “powerhouse” in my opinion. The Angels are far from it.

    • http://www.twitter.com/tomzig Tom Zig

      Depending on how you define “powerhouse”, I think the Rangers fit the bill.

    • Havok9120

      The Phillies say hello.

      Even if you want to say that there pen has been enormously better (I’d disagree, but whatever), their offense is also worse. And while they wouldn’t be the best team if transplanted to the AL, they’d still be a “powerhouse” in any division but the ALE.

      • Knoxvillain

        I think the Phillies are overrated. They don’t have an infield, and they only have three good starters.

  • John

    Seriously what are the odds that a team outside of those 6 (NYY, BOS, TB, LAA, TEX, DET) makes the playoffs? Which team is most likely to do it? Toronto?

    • Havok9120

      Yep. I’d say Toronto. They’re not only the best team outside of those, they’re also so much better than the next in line that it makes up for their being in the East.