Nate On Sports: The 2010 MLB Preview that YOU Demand (Part I)

For me, the beginning of the baseball season means more than six sure-fire months of disappointment (to clarify further, I’m a Cubs fan.) But I still look forward to it more than the beginning of any other professional sports season, despite the constant signals of impending doom coming from Chicago. I don’t know, I think it’s more than just baseball – it means that spring is here, thunderstorms replace snowstorms, the trees leaf out, and you can grill outside without getting frostbite. But now I’m sounding too philosophical. There’s just something about baseball season, however, and with that in mind, here is the 2010 AL preview, brought to you by yours truly. (Note: Part II – the National League, will be composed next week.)

AL East:

As a resident Yankee-hater, it pains me to say that the Yankees are probably, once again, the favorites to win the World Series. Their offense, in one word, is a juggernaut. New designated hitter Nick Johnson, in my opinion, was one of the wiser signings made in all of baseball; of course, with Johnson, you always have issues with health and durability. I will say, however, that the Yankees rotation is overrated. C.C. Sabathia is a true ace, but this team doesn’t seem to have a true #2 starter. A.J. Burnett is not that guy. And unless he duplicates last year, Javier Vazquez is not that guy either (and I’m sorry, but anyone who expects Vazquez to repeat last year’s performance is crazy; among other things, Yankee Stadium will not be kind to him.)

Instead, the best rotation in the division (and the league) belongs to the Boston Red Sox. I can’t name a better starting rotation then Beckett-Lester-Lackey-Daisuke-Buchholz. And, if Daisuke continues to get hurt or suck, they can replace him with Tim Wakefield, who only made the All-Star team last year. The Red Sox offense isn’t quite as potent as in years past, but plenty serviceable enough.

As for the rest of the teams, Tampa probably has the most talent of any of the teams – it’s just a matter of the talent coming into its own and gelling (David Price and B.J. Upton – I’m looking at you two.) Baltimore is young and talented as well, but probably still a year or two away. Toronto… well… they’re a lot of years away, especially since they can’t count on Doc Halladay to win them 20 games a year anymore.

Projected order of finish: New York-Boston-Tampa-Baltimore-Toronto

AL Central:

Looks to be quite possibly the worst division in baseball in the coming year (the other contender looks to be its National League counterpart), although it still promises an exciting race. Neither the Twins, White Sox, or Tigers immediately jump out at you as being the frontrunner, but all teams can make an argument. Minnesota has that guy, Joe Mauer… maybe you’ve heard of him? Both the offense and starting pitching look to be solid for the Twins, assuming Kevin Slowey and Francisco Liriano are both relatively recovered from injury. The Twins’ Lex Luthor will be the bullpen after closer Joe Nathan had to undergo Tommy John surgery.

The White Sox, in my opinion, are a pretty close match to the Twins. The starting rotation looks to be better on paper, and probably will be if Jake Peavy is even half as good in the Cell as he was in Petco. The offense is not one that will scare many opposing pitchers, however. If the White Sox are to contend, it will because of their pitching – both starters and the bullpen.

The Tigers are an interesting case. They have a legitimate ace in Justin Verlander and a legitimate offensive superstar in Miguel Cabrera. The problem is the other guys. On the pitching side, they are relying on Dontrelle Willis to be their #3 starter, when he hasn’t been a #3 starter in years. They are also relying on Jeremy Bonderman to be injury-free (and respectable) again. On the offensive side, who’s going to protect Cabrera? Johnny Damon? Magglio Ordonez? I don’t think so. If these questions are answered in a positive manner, the Tigers can and will be the class of the division. It’s hard to envision all that, however.

Then you have Cleveland and Kansas City, or Grady Sizemore and Zach Greinke. Those poor guys. Cleveland has pretty much been gutted in the last couple of years, leaving Sizemore and some other guys (well, Shin-Soo Choo is more than “some other guy” – but I need to see more than one good year to jump on the bandwagon.) Kansas City has been gutted for about the last two decades or so, so you can’t feel quite as sorry for Greinke. I think he probably has more young talent around him than Sizemore does (Billy Butler anyone?), but for Kansas City, it’s all about holding onto that young talent. Remember when the Royals had Johnny Damon and Carlos Beltran, among others, in its farm system? Me either, but it happened. Look it up. Fortunately for those guys, there will be a day when they become free agents and can leave. And dear Grady Sizemore: Chicago and the Bleacher Bums would love you.

Projected order of finish: Minnesota-Chicago-Detroit-Kansas City-Cleveland

AL West:

Now this looks to be a fun division – in fact, I’ll go out on a limb now and say this will be one of the two most exciting division races in baseball this year. I’ll even say that a World Series darkhorse will come from this division – problem is, I don’t know if it will be Seattle or Texas. And of course, you can never count out the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim of Orange County California either. And even Oakland usually manages to keep things interesting for a while.

Let’s look at Seattle first, though. No team underwent an overhaul even remotely comparable to the one the Mariners went under this offseason. Cliff Lee was brought in to give the Mariners perhaps the best 1-2 punch in the Majors when you combine him with Felix Hernandez. Chone Figgins brings them another legitimate top-of-the-order guy to go with Ichiro. Hell, I even like the Milton Bradley trade for the Mariners (I liked it for the Cubs too, he simply couldn’t be kept around.) Can you tell I’m pretty bullish on this team? I’m not completely sold on the bullpen, however. David Aardsma needs to have more than one good year before I’d feel safe with him as my closer. But that only slightly curbs my enthusiasm for this team.

Texas will also be a fun team to watch. They almost cracked through the ceiling last year, and seem poised to take another step this year. The offense is almost Yankee-like, with maybe two potential “breaks” in the order. The knock on the Rangers, however, has always been their starting pitching and will be their starting pitching again this year. Yes, they signed Rich Harden, which was a pretty good move in my book. But they also traded reliable Kevin Millwood, a trade that didn’t make much sense to me. Essentially, they’ll probably have to outslug the competition again. They have the line-up to do it, however. And if they are able to do it, the bullpen looks to be very solid.

The Angels will be the Angels in 2010 I expect. That is, no one will expect much from them, yet they’ll probably be a factor in the division race. It’s just a testament to the best manager in the game, Mike Scioscia. Their offense looks solid and the pitching staff has potential, and if Scott Kazmir and Ervin Santana can revert to their previous forms, this team may find itself in the playoffs again. Oakland has a promising pitching staff, but it’s offense leaves a lot to be desired. The pitching is usually enough to keep them in the race a few months, though.

Projected order of finish: Seattle-Texas-Los Angeles-Oakland.

Playoff teams: New York, Minnesota, Seattle, and Boston. AL Champ: (surprise!) Boston.

Again, next week will feature the National League preview. Teaser: I don’t have the Cubs in the playoffs.