What will happen in the American League this year? Here’s a team-by-team look at the AL, the top storylines, key players to watch and one man’s predictions.
Storyline: General manager Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter have brought stability and a winning attitude to the Orioles, who expect to contend with the rotation in developing stages. The Orioles, the No. 2 wild card team last season, have a deep bullpen to go with a tight defense and strong offense, but contention hinges on the rotation’s growth.
Players to watch: 2B Brian Roberts, an Orioles icon, has a relaxing, pain-free spring and his return from constant injury will be a huge spark for the Birds. ... Is 3B Manny Machado, who played brilliantly in the final six weeks of 2012, going to be a first-time AL All-Star? ... After playing several positions last season, 1B Chris Davis is settled in at one position. He’ll be an above-average defensive player, but can he cut down on his 169 strikeouts and approach 40 home runs after hitting 33 last season?
Outlook: Plenty of skeptics say the Orioles can’t repeat their success in one-run and extra-inning games from 2012. Maybe not, but the Orioles are ready to prove that last season’s run to the postseason was no fluke. They will contend in a wide-open division.
BOSTON RED SOX
Storyline: After falling out of contention last season with miserable chemistry, the Red Sox hope that new manager John Farrell, who replaces Bobby Valentine, can restore the winning.
Players to watch: LHP Jon Lester, who dominated from 2008 to 2011, makes his third consecutive opening day start and this time, he needs to bounce back from a 4.82 ERA last season. Same for RHP Clay Buchholz (4.56). ... Are RF Shane Victorino’s .246 and .229 averages the final two months of last season a sign of things to come? ... The Red Sox hope that 1B Mike Napoli’s rebound spring is the first step in erasing the memory of .227 and three home runs in 108 games for the Rangers last season.
Outlook: At best, the Red Sox will be a .500 team. Farrell is going to be a good manager, but the team’s short-term additions will not make them a contending team.
CHICAGO WHITE SOX
Storyline: The White Sox should have been in the postseason last September, but a three-game lead on Sept. 18 versus the second-place Tigers evaporated with a 2-12 finish. There are few changes on the roster.
Players to watch: LHP Chris Sale, with his funky delivery, will be an AL Cy Young candidate after having 192 strikeouts in 192 innings in his first season as a starter. ... A familiar face, C A.J. Pierzynski, is gone, giving the job to prospect Tyler Flowers, an upgrade defensively. ... DH Adam Dunn, a former National, is shooting for his seventh season of at least 40 home runs. Dunn led the majors last season with 222 strikeouts, 105 walks and 4.43 pitches per plate appearance. ... 1B Paul Konerko is the only player remaining from the White Sox’s 2005 World Series title team.
Outlook: The White Sox are as non-descript as second-year manager Robin Ventura, but they have enough pitching, with John Danks, Gavin Floyd and Jake Peavy behind Sale, to make them contenders in the AL Central. Danks starts the season on the DL.
Storyline: After success and controversy with the Red Sox and then time off to go into broadcasting, manager Terry Francona takes over the Indians. The Tribe spent Yankees-like money in the offseason and is counting on more than a steady rebuilding process.
Players to watch: With LF Michael Brantley, CF Michael Bourn and RF Drew Stubbs, the Indians’ biggest improvement their outfield defense. ... The Indians think mechanical adjustments will solve the inconsistent pitching of RHP Ubaldo Jimenez, once a Rockies ace. ... Ex-Oriole Mark Reynolds says he is determined to hit 30 home runs and not worry about strikeouts. From 2008, Reynolds leads the majors with 993 strikeouts and his 164 home runs rank fourth in that period.
Outlook: The Indians, who faded in the second half of the last two seasons, have a grade A bullpen, an improved defense and core of young athletic players. The Indians are poised for a run in the AL Central.
Storyline: The Tigers, who lost the World Series last season, are the heavy favorites to win the AL Central and the AL pennant. They have a durable rotation and the most feared offense in the league. Anything less than a World Series win is considered a bust.
Players to watch: The acquisition of RF Torii Hunter (.313-16-92 with the Angels in 2012) and the return of injured switch-hitting DH Victor Martinez (.330-12-103 in 2011) gives the Tigers even more thump in a lineup that has Triple Crown winner and AL MVP Miguel Cabrera and 1B Prince Fielder. ... The Tigers spent $80 million on pitching Anibal Sanchez, but their bullpen is full of questions, especially with 21-year-old Bruce Rondon not being to nail down the closer’s role in spring training. ... RHP Max Scherzer, with 589 strikeouts in the last three seasons, pitches in the shadow of RHP Justin Verlander and is the most-under rated pitcher in the AL.
Outlook: The safe thing is to pick the Tigers to win it all. But the division is improved and the Tigers, who struggled to win the AL Central last season, aren’t facing an easy stroll this time either.
Storyline: After starting as the Colt .45s and in the NL since 1962, the Astros are playing in the AL West for the first time. The Astros are in rebuilding mode and fans in Houston are in for a season of adjustments and growth.
Players to watch: RHP Lucas Harrell is the Astros’ best pitcher after going 11-11 with a 3.76 ERA last season. ... 3B Matt Dominguez, once the Marlins’ top infield prospect, is solid defensively, and the Astros think his hitting will follow suit. ... At 5-foot-5, 2B Jose Altuve is the shortest player in the majors, but he hit .286 with nine home runs last season.
Outlook: Manager Bo Porter, the ex-Nats coach, and the Astros face their third consecutive triple-digit loss season. Only one other team - the Mets from 1962-65 - has had more consecutive seasons of at least 106 losses.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Storyline: After having one winning season in the last 18, the Royals are trying to play their first meaningful October games since the days of George Brett and Bret Saberhagen in the 1985 World Series.
Players to watch: The Royals won 11 of ex-Oriole Jeremy Guthrie’s last 12 starts last season. He pitched well after leaving the Rockies. ... The new rotation includes ex-Rays James Shields and Wade Davis, and ex-Angel Ervin Santana, and that could yield 600 innings. ... 3B Mike Moustakas, LF Alex Gordon, 1B Eric Hosmer, CF Lorenzo Cain and DH Billy Butler form a strong nucleus for a lineup that can score runs with the best.
Outlook: The Royals, after rebuilding their rotation, will end their streak of four consecutive seasons of 90-plus losses and have their first winning record since 2003.
LOS ANGELES ANGELS
Storyline: The big-money Angels, never afraid of long-term contracts, are determined to buy a team that wins a World Series. The Angels have a thunderous offense, but will the pitching hold up?
Players to watch: With a full season, OF Mike Trout, the AL’s top rookie in 2012, expects to hit .300 with 50 steals and 100 runs scored, given that Josh Hamilton, Mike Trumbo and Albert Pujols hit behind him. ... Ace RHP Jered Weaver’s strikeouts/nine innings have dropped from 9.3 in 2010 to 6.8 last season. ... Ex-Nats LHP Sean Burnett will likely throw 60 innings averaging eight strikeouts and one walk per nine innings, but with RHP Ryan Madson injured, the closer’s role is a question.
Outlook: The Angels need comeback seasons from LHP C.J. Wilson and RHP Tommy Hanson to contend.
Storyline: After two seasons of 90-plus losses, the Twins are in rebuilding mode, focusing on their rotation. They also have inexperience in two outfield positions, as well as the middle infield.
Players to watch: The Twins’ best pitcher from a year ago, Scott Diamond, has emerged as the staff ace, but starts the season the disabled list. ... Three former National League pitchers - RHPs Mike Pelfrey (Mets), Kevin Correia (Pirates) and Vance Worley (Phillies) - will be in the rotation. ... The Twins traded CFs Denard Span to the Nationals and Ben Revere to the Phillies, but Aaron Hicks, a five-tool prospect, won the CF job this spring. Hicks will bat leadoff. ... The lineup is anchored by C Joe Mauer, 1B Justin Morneau, OF Josh Willingham and DH Ryan Doumit.
Outlook: The Twins have a bright future with good prospects in the farm system, but the pitching is terrible. They could lose 100 games this season.
NEW YORK YANKEES
Storyline: How many more punches can the Yankees take? Dominating since 1996, the Yankees are battling age, injuries and a vulnerable rotation. Change is on the horizon, but do the Yankees ever rebuild? Now might be the time.
Players to watch: Eduardo Nunez, who has made 18 errors in 77 career games at shortstop, will replace the injured SS Derek Jeter (ankle) for opening day. ... Their new acquisition, OF Vernon Wells, slumped for two seasons with the Angels, but hit .361 in spring training. Are the Yankees delusional with needing star-studded talent? ... Can LHP Andy Pettitte, 40, and RHP Mariano Rivera, 43, turn back the clock? ... 2B Robinson Cano is eligible for free agency after the season, and if the Yankees fall from contention, would they consider trading Cano in July?
Outlook: The Yankees will finish last for the first time since they were 10th in 1966. And, it will be their first losing record since going 76-86 in 1992.
Storyline: The Athletics are either a good or a rebuilding team. Last year, they were both when they were the surprising AL West champions. Now, with a versatile, young and deep roster, Oakland shoots for a successful encore.
Players to watch: LHP Brett Anderson, the starter on opening day, has a nasty repertoire, and assuming health, he can be AL Cy Young candidate. ... An example of LF Yeonis Cespedes’ grit: Despite an aching wrist, he hit .319-5-14 in the A’s final 19 games last season. ... Ex-Nats LHP Tom Milone led A’s last season with 31 starts, 190 innings, 1.71 walks per nine, and A’s manager Bob Melvin says he expects Milone to improve this season.
Outlook: The Athletics are loaded with talent and will win the AL West.
Storyline: The Mariners were the worst run-producing team in the AL last season, but a new round of power hitters in addition to a solid nucleus of young players gives baseball fans in Seattle hope.
Players to watch: Ex-Nats OF Michael Morse and DH Kendrys Morales, who missed the 2011 season with the Angels because of a broken leg, each give the Mariners legitimate 30-home run power to help C Jesus Montero. ... The Mariners are banking on 1B Justin Smoak to build on last September, when he hit .338 with five home runs. ... Former Orioles LHP Joe Saunders is No. 3 behind RHPs Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma in the rotation.
Outlook: The Mariners might not have enough pitching to contend in the tough AL West, but they are an up-and-coming team.
TAMPA BAY RAYS
Storyline: Same old, same old for the spendthrift Rays: Typically, they have one of the best rotations, but as usual, they will be challenged to score runs. Last year, they ranked 11th in runs scored (697) in the AL, and this year, they might not be any better.
Players to watch: Ex-Orioles Luke Scott is the only legitimate power threat to support the team’s best hitter, 3B Evan Longoria. ... 1B James Loney has never hit more than 15 home runs in a season. ... RHP Jeff Niemann, 40-26 in 92 starts, is coming back from a fractured leg.
Outlook: The Rays have won at least 90 games four of the last five years, making the playoffs in three of those Octobers. This time, look for them to have 85 wins.
Storyline: The Rangers, beaten by the Orioles in the wild card playoff game last season, are trying to get back to the World Series with a thin rotation and a lineup that is missing Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli and Michael Young. The Rangers missed out on RHPs Zack Greinke and Kyle Lohse, but hope to have RHP Colby Lewis back from injury in May.
Players to watch: RF Nelson Cruz hit .303 for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic, and that could be a signal for a strong start. In 2009, he hit well in the WBC and started the season with nine home runs in the first 50 games. ... 2B Ian Kinsler has a .340 on-base percentage for the Rangers during the last two seasons. ... Former Astro Lance Berkman, 37, a switch-hitter, has his usual list of injuries, but he still hits and will make his Rangers DH debut against the Astros, his original team.
Outlook: The new-look Rangers are no longer the favorites in the AL West. They will finish third behind Oakland and Los Angeles.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Storyline: The Blue Jays loaded up with star players via trades and free agent signings. Their payroll went from $83 million to $125 million and they are serious about getting back to the World Series since last winning it in 1993.
Players to watch: The rotation is sterling with the addition of RHP R.A. Dickey, the 2012 NL Cy Young Award winner, RHP Josh Johnson and LHP Mark Buehrle. ... LHP Ricky Romero, an All-Star and the Blue Jays’ former No. 1 starter, was shipped to Single-A to work on mechanical issues. ... OF Jose Bautista’s left wrist is healthy and he’s taking aim at a 40-home run season. ... SS Jose Reyes has a batting title, a hits title and three stolen base titles on his resume.
Outlook: The Blue Jays are the trendy pick to win. But given the big-money contracts, can new manager John Gibbons get the egos pulling in the right direction and win? In the last couple of seasons, the Red Sox and Dodgers tried to win by adding superstar players, and it didn’t work for them.