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2010 A.L. – What To Watch For

I was going over the final rosters of every major league team last night while watching the Yankees piss one away against the Red Sox and nothing really changed in my predictions for the American & National Leagues. However, the more I got to looking at the rosters, the more I wanted to get a post up about what I’m looking for each team. As with the predictions, I’ll start with the American League and simply go in alphabetical order and list where I have them predicted.

Baltimore Orioles – Predicted 4th Place: A.L. East

The Orioles are a young team on the move and one of my favorite teams in all of baseball so there are certainly a ton of storylines here. I don’t think the Orioles are going to be close to competing this season with the likes of New York, Boston & Tampa Bay so the Orioles really need to be viewed from a developmental standpoint. The Orioles do not disappoint on this end. Position wise there is a lot to like. Matt Wieters is still considered to be the heir apparent to Joe Mauer and was easily thought of as the best prospect in baseball this time last season. He didn’t exactly tear the cover off the ball hitting 288/340/412 in his inaugural season. He struggled badly against lefties and on the road, but did start to figure it out in the 2nd half. His continued development is a huge factor in Baltimore’s emergence as a contender in the next couple of seasons. Adam Jones is another guy to look out for. He is a ridiculously athletic CF, but sort of needs to put his tools together. He needs to get more patient at the plate although some of his power did emerge last season as he went from 9HR in 2008 to 19HR in 2009 in about the same number of ABs. The final position guy to look at for Baltimore is outfielder Felix Pie. Pie has seemingly been around forever as a top prospect in the Chicago Cubs organization, but then got traded to the Orioles where he has emerged a bit. He’s a bit like Jones in that he’s a very athletic toolsy outfielder, but Pie’s burden has been left handed pitching. The good news is that he significantly improved his approach against lefties last season. It’s a bit problematic for Baltimore because Nolan Reimold is trying to find time too in the outfield, but having an outfield of Nick Markakis, Jones, Pie & Reimold is extremely enticing from a prospect standpoint. Markakis is pretty much a finished product and has turned into an All-Star in his own right, but if the 3 other players can turn into annual All-Star caliber players, then Baltimore’s offense will be headed straight to the top when you already factor in guys like Matt Wieters & Brian Roberts.

As for Baltimore’s pitching prospects, all you need to know are the names of Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta. Matusz was a 1st round pick in 2008 who made his debut last season going 5-2 with a 4.63 ERA. The southpaw posted ratios of 7.7K/9 and 2.8BB/9 so he’s on the track to stardom if he keeps this up. He has a solid 4-pitch arsenal and a 92mph fastball. Before being called up Matusz was 11-2 with a 1.91 ERA in 19 starts in the minor leagues. It was his first taste of professional baseball after not getting a chance to play in 2008. Tillman is even younger than Matusz and came over in the Erik Bedard trade with the Seattle Mariners. Tillman’s debut wasn’t as good as Matusz’s, going 2-5 with a 5.40 ERA, but Tillman has dominated minor league hitters for awhile now. He didn’t make the opening day roster, but Tillman is a huge part of Baltimore’s future plans. He throws a 3-pitch mix with a 92mph fastball. Arrieta hasn’t pitched in the majors but has a 3-pitch mix & a low-90s fastball. Arrieta projects more as a #3 starter, but Matusz & Tillman project as #1/#2 starters so that’s really all Baltimore needs from him.

These are the players to watch for the Orioles as they move forward. If these young guys make strides and come into their own, it’ll be difficult for the Orioles to still overcome the talents of the Yankees & Red Sox, but they definitely would become a 85-88 win team with the ability to take advantage of a situation that Tampa Bay took advantage of in 2008 when the big boys were down. Everything has to break right, but for now, all we really need to focus on is the development of those younger players.

Boston Red Sox – Predicted 2nd Place: A.L. East (Wild Card Champs)

The Red Sox are a pretty much a finished product so essentially the storyline will be whether or not the team can stay healthy. There are a few interesting twists that could make this Boston squad fairly interesting to watch. Boston made a pretty big push to improve their team defensively. They went out and got Mike Cameron to play LF, Adrian Beltre to play 3B and Marco Scutaro to play SS. Beltre & Cameron are thought to be defensive wizards and Boston is definitely going for the adage of “a run prevented is as good as a run scored.” It’ll be interesting to take a look at their defensive efficiency and see if this is bearing out for them. Boston’s defensive efficiency in 2009 ranked 13th out of 14 A.L. teams. Only the Kansas City Royals were worse and converting balls in play into outs. Boston was still a playoff team last season so greatly improving their defense could make this an outstanding ballclub. In last night’s opener against the Yankees, Boston’s defensive efficiency was .700 which is a marked improvement over last season’s total.

As for individuals, the one name to look at is Clay Buchholz. Buchholz didn’t lose his stuff all of a sudden. He’s still just 25-years old this season and still features a 4-pitch arsenal along with a mid-90s fastball. It’s basically time for Boston to take the kid gloves off of him. As far as raw “stuff” is concerned, maybe only Josh Beckett has more on Boston’s staff than does Buchholz. Buchholz almost threw 200IP between AAA & Boston last season so he’s ready for the workload. The big problem for him in his major league stints has been his control. If he can harness his ability and get the ball going where he wants, then Boston has an instant #1 starter on their hands that is right now slotted in the #5 spot. That’s a tremendous advantage.

Chicago White Sox – Predicted 2nd Place: A.L. Central

The White Sox are like Boston here in that they are pretty much a finished product. There aren’t many developmental aspects of Chicago to look at really. They do have quite a few new faces for an entire season such as Jake Peavy, Juan Pierre, Alex Rios and Andruw Jones, but like Boston the one thing to watch for Chicago is health. They really need Carlos Quentin to stay healthy all season long out in RF. Paul Konerko is only getting older and I’m not sold on Andruw Jones being a huge source of power for the White Sox. If Quentin goes down, then where is the power hitting going to come from?

The AL Central should be a serious dogfight. I think the White Sox have a better rotation than the Twins, but I think Minnesota hits better and doesn’t have quite the question marks that Chicago does throughout the lineup. Seeing how Gordon Beckham and Alexei Ramirez go forward could be very interesting. Those guys have the potential to be 20+ HR guys. If they can pull that off then the deficit in power (left by the departures of Jermaine Dye & Jim Thome) won’t be as acutely felt otherwise. It’s simply about execution here for the south-siders.

Cleveland Indians – Predicted 4th Place: A.L. Central

It was just 2007 in which the Indians won 96 games and a 3-1 lead in the ALCS over the Boston Red Sox before losing 3 straight to witness the Red Sox win their 2nd World Series title in 4-years. The Indians certainly had shots to win a title in recent years, most notably 1995 and 1997, but in some ways I think the 2007 season was their best chance to get that World Series title. The weird thing is that the Indians aren’t all that much different than they were in 2007. C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee & Victor Martinez is gone, but Lee wasn’t Lee yet in 2007 and outside of Sabathia & Martinez, the team is either still the same or had players who were easily replaceable.

Like the Orioles, A’s or Rangers, development is the word for the Tribe and there are plenty of young guys to take a look at. Michael Brantley will make his debut this season as a full time starter out in LF which will be pretty interesting. He doesn’t have the power to fill the position, but has speed to burn and it doesn’t hurt Cleveland too much because of Grady Sizemore out in CF. Matt LaPorta also gets his first full time starting gig at 1B. This is actually interesting because this all happened due to Russell Branyan being injured. Branyan was going to be the everyday 1B, but when he went down, the Indians moved LaPorta to 1B and slid Brantley into LF. It’ll be interesting to see how these two players fare as they probably represent some of Cleveland’s future.

The other really key thing to watch for Cleveland is the pitching. Fausto Carmona is coming back 100% from injury and he was lights out this spring. If he can regain some of the stuff he had before going down then Cleveland will be served well as Carmona was a huge part of the 2007 run. The Indiana also get back Jake Westbrook. Westbrook missed all of the 2009 season and parts of 2007 & 2008. Who knows how his return will be, but the last time Westbrook was healthy was in 2006 and he went 15-10 with a 4.17 ERA.

The last guy to really watch is SP Justin Masterson. I really like Masterson and last season he converted to a full time starting pitcher and posted a K/9 of 8.3! That’s a K-rate typically reserved for #1/#2 starters. On the other hand, Masterson doesn’t really have an idea of where he’s throwing the ball. He routinely walks over 4 batters per 9 and hasn’t posted a K/BB ratio of 2+ yet in his major league career. If Masterson can harness his control, then Cleveland will have a very nice starter on their hands, potentially a front-end starter.

Detroit Tigers – Predicted 3rd Place: A.L. Central

Looking at the American League as a whole, the Tigers are the most fascinating team in the AL. They aren’t where the Orioles are, but they aren’t exactly a finished product either like the Red Sox, Yankees & White Sox. There is a ton to look at here and we’ll start with the starting rotation. The first guy to look at is Max Scherzer. Scherzer came over to Detroit from Arizona in the Curtis Granderson/Edwin Jackson trade. Arizona got FLEECED in this deal as Scherzer has all the tools to become a dominating #1 starter. Arizona handled him gently, but last season he got his first full taste and rewarded Arizona immensely. It doesn’t look great because he went 9-11 with a 4.12 ERA, but his ratios were outstanding at 9.2K/9, 3.3BB/9 & 8.8H/9. Scherzer throws gas at 94-95mph to go along with a mid-80s slider and changeup. He’s still feeling his way through, but the early signs are incredible. Going to a pitcher’s park from that bandbox in Arizona should only make the transition look that much better.

The other pitcher to look at in the starting rotation is Rick Porcello. Porcello is a really weird guy to think about. His raw stuff is simply incredible. He throws a 4-seam fastball that sits at 96-97mph, but the Tigers don’t want him throwing that. Porcello also throws a 2-seam fastball that sinks in the 92mph range which is where the Tigers want him. Porcello is making himself into a sinkerball pitcher and pitches to contact. He’s learned a great amount of control with it as his first year as a major leaguer he walked 2.7 batters per 9. Remember that last season was Porcello’s first as a major leaguer. He was only 20-years old and went 14-9 with a 3.96ERA. He has a knee-buckling 12-6 curveball the Tigers really didn’t let him throw in the minors. You can easily argue this is a 20-year old kid toying with major league hitters and not even throwing his fastball and threw a curveball he couldn’t really throw in the minors! Where he goes from here on a developmental curve is anyone’s guess, but the guy absolutely screams #1 starter which would put him ahead of both Justin Verlander & Scherzer. That’s incredible.

The other guy in the rotation to watch is Jeremy Bonderman. It’s hard to believe that Bonderman will only be 27-years old this year. He and Verlander are actually the same age. If Bonderman is healthy and right, he’s the kind of guy who can throw a shutout on any given night. Unfortunately he’s been injured the last 3 seasons so who knows what Detroit can get out of him. At this point all they need for him to be is a 4th starter and his ceiling is so much more than that.

Offensively the Tigers have a couple of players worth looking at. Austin Jackson came over in the Granderson trade while Scott Sizemore is coming up from the minors to take over for Placido Polanco. Sizemore was a 5th round pick back in 2006 and he’s ready to take over the keystone in Motown. Last year between AA/AAA he hit 308/389/500 with 17HR, 39-Doubles, 5-Triples, 66RBI & 21SB in 599PA. He’s ready and could potentially give the Tigers a bit more offense than Polanco could. Austin Jackson steps in to replace Curtis Granderson in CF. Like Sizemore, Jackson has never played in the majors, but is ready to go. Last year he hit 300/354/405 in AAA with 24SB. He won’t be the offensive player Granderson is, but he can play some excellent defense out in CF which is exactly what Detroit will need with Johnny Damon in LF and Magglio Ordonez in RF. I wouldn’t sleep on Ryan Raburn either. The Tigers finally gave Raburn some playing time and he rewarded them with a 291/359/533 batting line with 16HR. Raburn will take a walk, but like Jackson has struggled with contact issues.

Jimmy Leyland and the Tigers have a very intriguing team. On potential this is probably the best team in the Central, but they have a ton of youth that needs to come through in order for them compete. If Verlander, Porcello & Scherzer can stay healthy while some of the young hitters can be compliment pieces to big bats like Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, Brandon Inge, Johnny Damon & Carlos Guillen, the Tigers will be the race all season long if not leading it by a considerable margin.

Kansas City Royals – Predicted 5th Place: A.L. Central

The Royals are not only going to be bad, they are boring as well. As a team I don’t see how anyone can like being a Royals fan. They don’t really have a ton of young guys trying to make their mark the way Detroit or Baltimore does. Then again, they aren’t exactly a finished product only worried about execution and health although the makeup the team would you lead to believe in the latter although missing the talent for it to matter.

There are a couple of interesting players. Billy Butler hit 301/362/492 in his first full season as a starter at just 23-years of age. Butler hit 21HR and had 93RBI for an anemic KC offense. He could stand to be more disciplined at the plate. If he keeps getting better, he should provide the Royals with one of the premier hitters in the AL in 2-3 years.

The other guy worth noting of course is defending AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke. Greinke finished the year 16-8 with a 2.16 ERA for a 97-loss team which is remarkable. Grienke probably should have won 22-23 games and I shudder the thought of him pitching for the Yankees or Red Sox. The crazy part is that Greinke could possibly get even better. He had a spectacular year, but he had 2 months that were awful by his standards. Greinke’s June saw him go 2-3 with a 4.05 ERA! His August wasn’t as bad going 3-3 with a 3.14 ERA, but those two months made up 33% of the season where Greinke simply wasn’t what he was in April, May, July & September. If Greinke can put together 5 months or even 6 instead of the 4 incredible months he had in 2009, then he’ll have no problem capturing yet another Cy Young no matter if Kansas City loses 107 games.

Los Angeles Angels – Predicted 2nd Place: A.L. West

For the Angels it’s simply about staying healthy and executing. They are much like the Red Sox & White Sox in that way. The one interesting aspect to the Angels is that you do see a changing of the guard. They lost Francisco Rodriguez before the 2009 season and now they enter the season without guys like Vladimir Guerrero, John Lackey & Chone Figgins. The one young guy they have that will be worth watching to see how he does is 3B Brandon Wood, but Wood has been stuck in the minors for a long time and is already 26.

I think losing John Lackey is a big deal. Joe Saunders seemingly is pitching over his ratios while Ervin Santana & Scott Kazmir are wild cards. That leaves Jered Weaver and Joel Pineiro, but Pineiro is leaving the N.L. for the more difficult A.L. and he’s also leaving Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan behind. The AL West is certainly catching up and LA is going through transition. They could possibly weather it, but the starting pitching is going to have to come up huge. It’s worth watching but I don’t think it’ll happen.

Minnesota Twins – Predicted 1st Place: A.L. West

Minnesota is in the same category as Chicago, Boston, & Los Angeles of the teams I’ve written about so far. They are a put together team that just needs the execution. The one difference with the Twins is that they have some key pieces that will be very interesting to watch because it could mean the difference between dominating and finishing behind Chicago and possibly even Detroit.

The first thing to watch for with the Twins is their bullpen. They’ve lost Joe Nathan for the season which means they don’t have a closer and you simply aren’t going to find a fill in with the skill set that Nathan has. The Yankees aren’t giving up Mariano Rivera anytime soon last time I checked. That means the onus of the closer’s job will probably fall to a quartet of players featuring Jose Mirajes, Pat Neshek, Matt Guerrier & Jon Rauch. Neshek has been injured the last couple of seasons, but was dominant in 06-07 and he gives right handed hitters complete fits. Mirajes is the left hander of the bunch and he is incredible against lefties although both Neshek & Mirajes do fine against their opposite batters. There are platoon splits to be certain, but they aren’t so bad as to completely make those guys specialists. Guerrier doesn’t have the gaudy ratios that Mirajes or Neshek have, but the guy gets people out which is as much as you can ask from any bullpen arm. More to the point, Guerrier has been completely healthy the last 3 years. Rauch seems like the logical pick. He’s more dominant than Guerrier, but probably not as split as Neshek or Mirajes. Neshek certainly fills all the demands of a “typical” closer in that he can flat out destroy opposing hitters when he’s on, but I suppose there is some lingering questions about his ability to get great left handed hitters out. I don’t espouse those thoughts and my guess is that Neshek should be the closer, but Rauch seems like the likely candidate. Either way, manager Ron Gardenhire most likely uses all 4 until somebody emerges from the group, but how well Minnesota fares with going closer by committee could be the difference between a division title and out of the playoffs all together.

A huge point that isn’t made enough is that the games in April mean just as much as the games in September. Minnesota has to pull through here in this regard.

The Twins also need big seasons from a couple of starting pitchers. Kevin Slowey had an injured plagued year in 2009, but he showed in 2008 that he’s going to be a big part of the Twins rotation moving forward. One thing Minnesota doesn’t have with Nick Blackburn, Glen Perkins, Brian Duensing or Carl Pavano is dominant starters who can be real stoppers. I think Scott Baker is one of these guys and I also think Slowey & Francisco Liriano can be one of those guys. Liriano has been light’s out this spring, but like Slowey, he needs to get back into the grove and become one of those front end starters.

If Liriano and Slowey can’t get back to that level, then Minnesota sort of gets back to having a rotation of guys with poor ratios outside of Baker. Combine that with a suspect backend of a bullpen and you are going to start having problems especially with Chicago & Detroit because their rotations can be flat out dominating if things break right. I think Minnesota will be more than fine offensively, but when it comes to the pitching staff, there is an awful lot to watch for.
New York Yankees – Predicted 1st Place: A.L. East

A lot has been made of the Yankees recently about how old they are getting. Even now you hear that Jeter, Pettitte, Posada & Rivera can’t possibly keep going on forever. That’s is true. Even Alex Rodriguez is now in his mid-30s and can’t possibly be expected to keep up the pace that’s given fans during his career up to this point.

On the other hand I don’t think people are giving the Yankees enough credit for making this team younger on the fly without having to rebuild with 21-year old minor leaguers. Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher & Brett Gardner are all pretty young guys. The rotation now boasts of fairly young guys in CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett & Phil Hughes. Javier Vazquez isn’t even that old. While the bullpen is led by the 40-year old Rivera, they also have big time young guys out there like David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Alfredo Aceves and Mark Melancon.

The Yankees do have an aging group of superstars, but GM Brian Cashman hasn’t let them get old lose value and then wonder what will happen next and try to start from scratch. Like some of the other clubs here, there is really nothing to watch for with the Yankees from a developmental standpoint. They are the defending world champions and easily the best collection of talent in baseball for the 2010 season.

It’ll all come down to staying healthy & execution. That’s it. I think a couple of subplots here are worth mentioning though because I think it affects the Yankees moving forward. The first is the Phil Hughes/Joba Chamberlain debate. I think for all intents in purposes the Yankees have been a bit unfair to both players. With Hughes they really never left him in the rotation for a significant period of time. He’ll get his chance now I think, but New York needs to take the kid gloves off of him. He’s bid his time in the bullpen with class. Now it’s time to see if the kid is ready to take on the expectations everyone thought he might achieve when he was a minor league player.

As for Chamberlain, I think the “Joba Rules” were a bit overdone. Chamberlain needed to just be put into the rotation and given the ball every 5th day. If he’s a reliever then there is certainly nothing wrong with that. I think Mariano Rivera is certainly comfortable with his legacy in Yankees history. If Chamberlain were to cut out a legacy just half of that of Rivera’s, he’d go down as one of the all time Yankee greats. That’s not a bad thing.

Seeing how Hughes takes to starting pitching and Chamberlain takes to being back in the bullpen is going to be really really interesting. In Hughes, the Yankees could possibly find themselves with a workhorse #3 starter who could be around for the next 13-14 years. With Chamberlain, they might have found the guy to offer up a seamless transition when the days of Mariano Rivera are no more.

The other interesting subplot for me with the Yankees is the development of Brett Gardner. With Curtis Granderson in the fold, Gardner is either going to be the LF of the future or a 4th outfielder type of guy. I’m probably over optimistic on the guy, but I think Gardner could become a 300/385/400 type of guy who can steal 70 bases and be an ideal leadoff guy for the Yankees for the next 5-6 years. Curtis Granderson is no leadoff hitter and neither is Robinson Cano or Nick Swisher. If Gardner can develop into the leadoff man with a .390 OBP% with incredible speed, then New York solves a bunch of lineup problems and gives themselves an incredible weapon up top for guys like A-Rod and Teixeira to drive in.

Oakland A’s – Predicted 4th Place: A.L. West

More than anything with Oakland it’s going to be about who Billy Beane decides to deal with. I don’t know what Oakland has in store for this season, but there are some rudimentary pieces in place. Brett Anderson is a potential #1 starter and if there is one guy to pay attention in Oakland, he’d be the guy. I don’t think it’s lost on Billy Beane that when Oakland was winning 100 games a season, they were doing so on the back of 3 dominant starters in Tim Hudson, Barry Zito & Mark Mulder.

Beane’s problem since those days is his trouble in trying to recreate that same environment. Brett Anderson is the first piece of that puzzle, but unlike Rich Harden, I think Anderson fulfills all the hype surrounding him as a prospect. The other guys to go along with Anderson are Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, & Dallas Braden. If you really want to see how Oakland will fare down the road, forget about all the wins and losses and focus on these 4 pitchers. Cahill will start the season on the DL opening up a spot for Gonzalez, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see Gonzalez not give back his rotation spot when Cahill comes off the DL.

On the hitting side there are some things to be excited about too, but less obvious. When Oakland cut Jack Cust, they paved the way for Daric Barton to play 1B full time which is what they should have done from the beginning. Who knows whether Barton will ever live up the hype that surrounded his bat as a young prospect, but it’s not going to hurt Oakland any to find out. The other guys I’d be interesting in are Ryan Sweeney, Chris Carter & Michael Taylor. Sweeney had a decent year last season in his first as starter. Carter is in AAA but has been compared to Ryan Howard, while Taylor came over from the Phillies as a potential impact OF in the future. I don’t see how Carter & Taylor don’t make their debuts this season which will gives us an idea if Beane has an offense ready to support that pitching the way he did back in the day with Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez, Terrance Long & Jermaine Dye.

The other thing to keep in mind with Beane is his propensity to deal. He’s got some potentially attractive players in Ben Sheets, Mike Weurtz, Justin Duchscherer & Mark Ellis that could be dealt at the deadline for more young prospects that could be a part of Oakland’s future. It’s not always easy to be told this over and over and over again, but it’s the way Oakland does things.

Seattle Mariners – Predicted 1st Place: A.L. West

I have the Mariners getting to the ALCS to face the Yankees. I think they’ll lose to New York once they get there, but getting to the ALCS would be quite an accomplishment I think at this juncture for the Mariners. This is a finished team so like with New York or Minnesota, it’s all about health & execution.

Health though is the major term as Cliff Lee & Erik Bedard have started the season in the 15-day DL. A front three of Felix Hernandez, Lee & Bedard is ridiculous so the only thing to really be aware of is the health of the starting pitchers. If Lee can come back relatively soon and get 30 starts in this season to go along with Hernandez’s 33-34, I think Seattle is a virtual lock to win the West. If Bedard can get in 20-22 starts then it’s gravy. There is nothing to look at for Seattle other than their ability to win. Keeping tabs on their starters is the key to their entire season.

I don’t think losing Lee & Bedard for 15-days is going to make or break them, but if those guys miss significant time, then Seattle is going to have to hold on and hope their big 3 (or at least 2 of them) are healthy for the postseason because any two of those 3 starters will make life really difficult for whoever they play in the postseason. Seattle just has to get there first!

Tampa Bay Rays – Predicted 3rd Place: A.L. East

Tampa could get really interesting. There are 4 players to watch here that could make all the difference for the Rays. The first is David Price. Price got his first taste of being a full time major league starter last season and went 10-7 with a 4.42 ERA. He had a solid 7.2 K/9, but left the ball up a bit too much (1.2 HR/9) and had shaky control (3.8 BB/9). He was helped by a .282 BABIP, but Price is widely considered to be a can’t miss #1 starter. He’ll only be 24-years old this season so he needs to capitalize on his potential. In 2008 he was 12-1 with a 2.30 ERA in his stint in the minor leagues. Price is in Tampa Bay to stay, but he certainly makes them A LOT better if he’s more #2 starter than #4 material.

Wade Davis is the other pitcher in the rotation worth mentioning. Davis too has the ability to be a #1/#2 starter. He got his first taste of major league action last year and went 2-2 with a 3.76 ERA over 6 starts. He posted an 8.9 K/9 and a 0.5 HR/9 mark while walking 3.2 per 9IP. Like Price, Davis will be 24-years old in 2010 and it’s about time he start making his mark in the big leagues. It’s interesting for the Rays because they have really good starters in James Shields & Jeff Niemann, but those guys are #4/#5 starters for them if Davis & Price come into their own. They’ll join Matt Garza in the front end of what could be a dominating front end of a pitching staff. Tampa won’t push Davis & Price too hard, but if those guys make 28-29 starts then Tampa Bay is going to be right there.

Tampa also has a couple of guys to watch on offense. Sean Rodriguez came over from the Angels in the Scott Kazmir trade. Last year in AAA, Rodriguez hit 294/397/608 with 30HR, 98RBI & 9SB. He’ll be Tampa’s starting 2B this season with Ben Zobrist moving to RF. Zobrist came out of nowhere last season to post a 147 OPS+ and finish in the top-10 in MVP voting! Zobrist did flash some power in 2008, but really came into his own in 2009. The Rays have been dealing with a hole in RF for sometime now. The theory is to put Zobrist in RF (his bat in 2009 could handle it) and insert Rodriguez into 2B. Some people think Rodriguez could be last year’s Ben Zobrist. If that’s the case and Zobrist can maintain a little of what he had last season, then Tampa’s offense becomes even more potent because RF becomes a position of strength. A lot of this depends on Sean Rodriguez.

The last guy to look at is OF Desmond Jennings. Jennings is starting the year off in AAA, but last year between AA/AAA he hit 318/401/487 with 10HR, 52SB, 31-Doubles, 10-Triples, 62RBI and 67BB in 497AB. He’s the heir apparent to Carl Crawford in LF and with Crawford’s contract up at the end of the season, it’ll be interesting to see what Tampa Bay will do with him. I think it’s obvious the Rays won’t sign him long term given what Crawford will probably command on the open market, but the big question is will Tampa deal him to another contending team if they themselves are in the thick of the AL East race? I think Jennings can step in here and contribute and if the Rays feel the same way then they have to make that move. Unlike New York or Boston, Tampa Bay always has to be looking at how they can stay on top. Crawford is a Tampa Bay guy for sure and a fan favorite, but if you can flip him for a couple of top tier prospects that could help down the road, I don’t know how you avoid it.

Texas Rangers – Predicted 3rd Place: A.L. West

Despite winning 87-games and finishing 2nd in the West last season, I think the Rangers regress just a bit. Last year the Rangers got by with their pitching in a change of pace from what we’ve become used to down in Arlington. It’s no different this season. The Rangers have brought in Rich Harden to go with Scott Feldman, Tommy Hunter, Derek Holland & Colby Lewis. I don’t worry too much about the offense. Although they ranked 7th in the AL in runs scored last season, they’ll be OK. What we should be watching is how well Holland & Hunter do while also keeping an eye on the health of Rich Harden. Hunter is already on the 15-day DL while Harden is going to get hurt at some point this season. Can Holland make the jump to full time starter? That’s a pretty big question. Another big question is whether or not Scott Feldman can replicate his 2009 season in which he went 17-8 with a 4.08 ERA? His ratios last season would indicate that he can’t, and since Texas lost Kevin Millwood, they could be looking at quite a drop from the production they got from #1/#2 starters in 2009.

Another guy to keep an eye on is Neftali Feliz. Feliz in 2008 was a starter in the minors that went 10-6 with a 2.69 ERA over 27 starts. He posted ratios of 11 K/9, 4 BB/9 & 0.2 HR/9! For whatever reason, the Rangers have stashed him in the bullpen and my only guess is because they are getting him used to the rigors of major league pitching. Feliz & Holland are both #1 starters in the making and Texas could be in the nascent stages of building a powerhouse. How Hunter, Holland, Feliz & Harden do will go a long way towards deciding how the 2010 Rangers season will play out.

Toronto Blue Jays – Predicted 5th Place: A.L. East

Probably not as interesting as Detroit, but they are close. I have the Blue Jays locked into 5th place, but that might be underselling them just a bit as the Orioles are still pretty young. The Blue Jays are all about “IF”, but there is a lot to like here. There is tons to watch and look for when thinking about the Blue Jays. Here they are broken down just a bit:

Offense: Adam Lind is a star and Aaron Hill can rake. That’s two solid hitters right there. I think grabbing John Buck to be the catcher is also a good deal. I think Buck needed a change of scenery from Kansas City and he’s shown in the past he can hit. Vernon Wells isn’t worth what he’s being paid, but he could have a solid year. I think Lyle Overbay is a solid hitter. The wild card here could easily be Travis Snider. Last season in AAA he hit 337/431/663, but in Toronto the kid hit only 241/328/419. He’s a professional hitter and there is no reason why he shouldn’t be a .300 hitter with 30-35HR a year. He was just 21-years old last season so Snider is ridiculously young at this point. Randy Ruiz was a beast at DH last year in limited time posting a 166 OPS+! I also think Mike McCoy has some upside. He can get on base and play SS. Right now the Jays have Alex Gonzalez at SS, but I’m not so sure McCoy couldn’t be a better alternative.

Starting Pitching: Lots to like here in my opinion. The Jays get Shaun Marcum back in the rotation after losing him for the 2009 season. Marcum made huge strides in 2008 and he’s poised to make a splash in 2010. I think Marcum’s ceiling could be as a #2 starter which would be a huge help for the Jays. Toronto will also have Ricky Romero going this year for his 2nd full season in the majors. Romero was just a rookie last season, but went 13-9 with a 4.30 ERA in a rugged and brutal AL East. A couple of guys possibly not on the radar are Brandon Morrow & Dustin McGowan. In 2007 McGowan was making his mark as a top-shelf starter but injuries have hampered him in 2008 & 2009. He’s back in 2010 and it’ll be interesting to see what can happen here. Brandon Morrow has been used mainly as a reliever but has the reputation as having a nasty arsenal. He’s been effective out of the bullpen, but can he make the jump to the rotation? The last guy I wanted to mention is Brian Tallet. Tallet was a big time prospect back in the day for the Indians, but injuries got to him a bit and he’d since been converted to relief. The Jays used him as a starter last year. While he certainly was better as a reliever, Tallet has an odd reverse platoon split. The lefty gives up a line of 259/333/415 to right handed hitters, but against lefties he allows 290/376/517! He’s a lefty who strikesout 7 per 9 and keeps the ball in the park. If Tallet could somehow consolidate his skill set, we might have a solid #3/#4 starter here.

Relief Pitching: Having guys like Jason Frason, Shawn Camp, Casey Janssen, Scott Downs, Kevin Gregg and Merkin Valdez could make for one of the best bullpens in the league. It’ll be a wait and see approach on how it happens and whether the pen can form into a solid unit, but I think Toronto could have a dynamite bullpen that keeps them in close games if it comes together.

As you can see, there is a ton to watch for the Blue Jays. A lot of people were calling for their demise after the Halladay trade, but I don’t see it that way. For the most part, Toronto isn’t going to win the East, but they aren’t going to lie down either. They could play the spoiler role all season long on their way to winning 80-82 games if not a couple more.

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April 6, 2010 - Posted by | Baseball, Previews

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