American League season preview: West, East divisions are anyone’s guess

Last week, The Mac Weekly previewed the state of affairs in the National League for the 2013 season. This week, we do the same for the American League, where a handful of teams have substantially re-tooled their personnel in hopes of unseating the established orders in their respective divisions. Each of the three American League divisions should feature heated battles between longstanding powers and fresh contenders. Here’s just a taste of what to expect:

AL West

The biggest change in baseball this year will be the relocation of the Houston Astros from the National League Central division to the American League West division. The Astros, who last year finished with 55 wins and 107 losses, are expected to be even worse in 2013, and as such are a welcome sight for the other teams in the West. After adding slugging outfielder Josh Hamilton to a lineup that already includes Albert Pujols and Rookie of the Year Mike Trout, the Anaheim Angels figure to be divisional front-runners. That said, the Angels starting pitching remains far from dominant even after picking up Jason Vargas, Joe Blanton and Tommy Hanson for the back of their rotation, and Hamilton will need to replace the production of Torii Hunter, who departed for the Detroit Tigers.

Meanwhile, the Rangers lineup lost not only Hamilton but also Mike Napoli and Michael Young, and the additions of A.J. Pierzynski and Lance Berkman will not be enough to maintain the team’s status as an offensive juggernaut. Nonetheless, the Rangers will likely still be part of a three-team race for the division title along with the Angels and the Oakland A’s. By acquiring Hiroyuki Nakajima, Jed Lowrie and John Jaso, Oakland addressed their biggest offensive weaknesses from 2012, and as long as their talented but young starting rotation can stay healthy, they will pose a real threat to repeat as division champions.

Despite picking up defense-averse sluggers like Kendrys Morales, Michael Morse and Raul Ibanez, the Seattle Mariners will likely still be on the outside looking in this season. On the bright side, Felix Hernandez’s new contract extension ensures that Mariners fans will still get to watch one of the game’s best pitchers every fifth day, and the addition of the Astros to the division means that they will almost certainly avoid finishing in last place.

AL Central

Of all the divisions in baseball, the American League Central may be the least competitive this season. Detroit, the defending American League champ, will be improved offensively thanks to the addition of Hunter and the return of a healthy Victor Martinez. The perennially dominant (and newly über-wealthy) Justin Verlander will return to anchor the team’s rotation, and the re-signing of Anibal Sanchez provides adequate depth. The Tigers’ are still without a dedicated ninth-inning reliever after the departure of closer Jose Valverde, however, and will be employing a closer-by-committee approach when the season gets underway. The nearest challenger to the Tigers’ throne might be the Chicago White Sox, who should succeed if pitchers Jake Peavy and Chris Sale can reproduce their strong 2012 seasons. However, their lineup remains full of question marks, and their biggest home run threats, Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko, aren’t getting any younger.

The Kansas City Royals are a trendy pick to succeed in the Central after trading for new ace James Shields, despite the fact that they had to sacrifice top prospects Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi to do so. If KC fans are baffled by team management’s willingness to mortgage the team’s future, at least they can take solace in the fact that they still have young studs Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez and Mike Moustakas residing in their everyday lineup. Unfortunately for the Royals, though, their rotation drops off considerably after Shields.

The Cleveland Indians will be an interesting team to watch after adding Michael Bourn’s speed and Nick Swisher’s enthusiasm to their roster; however, unless Daisuke Matsuzaka, Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir can all miraculously revert to their skill sets from several years ago, the Indians’ weak starting pitching will be too much for the improved offense to overcome. Rounding out the division are the the Minnesota Twins, who made minor improvements this offseason but seem unlikely to contend. The Twins did improve upon 2012’s abysmal rotation by adding Kevin Correia and Vance Worley to the fold, but they still lack a true ace and, for that matter, a true number two. Joe Mauer is still a stud with the lumber, and if Justin Morneau can return to his glory days, the Twins’ offensive production will be solid. However, their bullpen is still a glaring weakness, and their rotation is outclassed in the division.

AL East

Fans of parity can rejoice in 2013, as this year represents the first time in recent memory that the New York Yankees will not be divisional favorites. Age is finally catching up to the Bronx Bombers, who will begin the season with Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira all on the Disabled List. Curtis Granderson, one of the team’s non-geriatric stars, will also be on the bench come Opening Day because of a broken arm. Even if expectations for the Yankees are lower this year, fans should still be sure to tune in to see Mariano Rivera pitch whenever possible, because the greatest closer of all time has announced that he will retire at the end of the season.

The biggest story in the AL East has to be the Toronto Blue Jays, who made large improvements both through free agency and from trades with the cellar-dwelling Mets and Marlins. Any time a team can add names like Jose Reyes, R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Mark Buerhle and Melky Cabrera in a single offseason, improvement seems inevitable, and the Blue Jays were already decent in 2012. On paper, the Blue Jays may well be the best team in the American League, but team chemistry and health are never guaranteed, so it will be intriguing to see just how good the Jays turn out to be. Their path through the division will not be easy, either, as the Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays, and Baltimore Orioles could all be better-than-average teams in 2012. The Sox added Napoli and speedster Shane Victorino to a lineup that already includes David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia, but the team will need pitchers Jon Lester, John Lackey and Clay Buchholz to improve upon their most recent efforts.

The Rays seem to always find a way to contend, and adding James Loney, Yunel Escobar and Wil Myers to this year’s squad should help them do just that. Reigning Cy Young Award winner David Price will lead the team’s rotation, which last year led all the Majors with a 3.19 ERA, and Fernando Rodney will return to anchor the bullpen after a remarkable 2012 campaign. Meanwhile, the Orioles will seek to repeat their improbable success from a year ago. Their offseason has been a relatively quiet one, although I like GM Dan Duquette’s low-risk pick-up of Jair Jurrjens, who could replace the departing Joe Saunders if he is able to return to form.