2004 Quick AL Preview

AL East
As much as the Yankees have done this offseason, their team still isn't as good as the Red Sox to start the year.  They have some real problems defensively and their starting rotation is thinner than it appears.  Worse, they have nothing on the farm system other than a catcher who could fill in if they have any injuries.  However, they do have a virtually unlimited payroll, which I expect them to use to push back into the playoffs.  But it is the Red Sox, with the additions of Curt Schilling, Keith Foulke and Pokey Reese who will win the division if Nomar isn't out for more than a month.  Provided he can stay healthy, Reese should be a huge bonus for Derek Lowe and has the talent to turn in a decent year offensively.  The Blue Jays are an interesting team, but if Orlando Hudson and Chris Woodward don't hit better than they did last year, and they have to rely on Reed Johnson for more than a couple of months, I don't see how they can stay with the BoSox and Yanks.  Delgado, Hinske and Wells are terrific, but without more help like the fluke production they got from Greg Myers last year, they don't have enough offense.  A fast start by Alexis Rios, followed by a quick promotion is their best bet to contend.  Both the O's and D-Rays are better than they were, but the O's have to rely too heavily on inexperienced pitching and the D-Rays are on the verge of a youth movement.  And neither team has the quality bullpen necessary to compete for the playoffs.

AL Central
The Royals are the trendy favorite to win the division, but I just don't see it.  They weren't as good as their record last year and they brought in potential headache injury-prone Juan Gonzales.  Their rotation is heavy on the lefties (as is the Indians'), but looking at their division opponents, that may not be such a smart idea.  The Twins line-up features just three left-batters (Doug Mientkiewicz, Jacque Jones and Corey Koskie) and the White Sox have just one (Jose Valentin).  A lefty heavy rotation is just what those line-ups are looking for.   It's true the Twins had a higher OPS vs righties last year, but over the last three years, Hunter (.820 vs .794), LeCroy (.905 vs .778), Stewart (.867 vs .811), Mientkiewicz (.823 vs .816) and Guzman (.722 vs .715)  have all been better against lefties than righties.  The only regulars who haven't are Jones, Koskie and Luis Rivas.  The only team that this appears to be an effective strategy against is the Indians, who have four lefties in their everyday line-up, but they aren't the team that everyone is trying to catch.  Many are predicting the Twins will drop because of the loss of Latroy Hawkins and Eddie Guardado.  I won't go as far as saying that their bullpen will be as good, because the Twins' bullpen has been sensational the last two years, but it should still be pretty solid.  They have a lot of no names who can pitch like Aaron Fultz, Grant Balfour, Jesse Crain, JC Romero and Sean Douglass to support new closer Joe Nathan.  The Indians are young and talented enough to finish second this year, but it is still the Twins who reign.  The White Sox lost some serious innings with the departure of Colon and don't appear to have any real answers after Loaiza and Garland.  Schoenwies and Wright have shown some promise this spring, but they still have a nasty habit of leaving too many fat pitches over the middle of the plate.  The Tigers will be better with the vets they added on offense and closer Ugueth Urbina, but they will be more a nuissance than a contender.  And who will they be more of a nuissance to, with the additions of right-handed bats like Ivan Rodriguez and Rondell White?  Any guesses?

AL West
The A's are still the favorite in the West, but the Angels have closed ground.  The Colon and Escobar signings might be as significant as the Guerrero signing.  That ballpark will help them significantly.  Plus, they are a deeper roster with Guillen and good prospects like Robb Quinlan, Alfredo Amezaga, Jeff Mathis and Casey Kotchman close.  The A's, however, upgraded their outfield in a big way with the arrivals of Kotsay and Kielty, and a healthy Jermaine Dye not only gives them a deep line-up, but very good defense where they were pretty bad last year.  The loss of Ramon Hernandez won't be significant with the combo of Damian Miller and Adam Melhuse replacing him.  Even with the potential loss of Mark Ellis for the year, the A's are in good shape with Esteban German and Marco Scutaro.  The only real concern is the health of Mark Mulder.  If his back and hip are ok, the A's are a solid bet for 95+ wins.  The Mariners are probably marking time.  Freddie Garcia will be much better after having his ruptured eardrums repaired and the team should get much better production from Rich Aurilia at short and Scott Speizio at third than they got last year at those spots.  But Randy Winn is no Mike Cameron in center, and Raul Ibanez is a platoon waiting to happen in left.  That means a drop in both offense and defense from the outfield.  Age is beginning to catch up to Jamie Moyer, Edgar Martinez and John Olerud, so a second half fade seems likely for Seattle.  The Rangers did not improve by trading ARod and their roster, other than the corners, appears to be in complete disarray.  Their pitching has some promise, especially their bullpen, but they still have some work to do.