Opening Day is less than two weeks away. Cactus League and Grapefruit League games are seeing starters go longer and regulars getting three at-bats or more. Injuries, as always, are piling up and affecting the hopes and fears of fans in many cities.
Letís forget about that for a minute and take a look at the 2011 American League. Iím basing my observations on what I read and see in the media, of course; no one is paying me to tour the camps and interview players, managers, and executives. So my perspective is from afar!
The Boston Red Sox have adopted a model that befits the #2 big-market club in MLB: run the payroll as close to or even a little above the Luxury Tax threshold, build a team that can win 95 games, see what happens in the post-season. Itís been a good strategy, paying off with World Series championships in 2004 and 2007. If it had worked in 2010, the Red Sox would have played the New York Yankees for the Wild Card in a one-game playoff, but due to too many injuries, the Red Sox could only win 89 games. They lost good players in the off-season as Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre left, but they got some great players signing Carl Crawford and trading for Adrian Gonzalez. Their pitching is deep and solid. Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis are healthy, and this year 95 wins and an AL East crown await them. This even with the questions they have at catcher.
The Yankees have questions at catcher, too, but they got one-time Dodger All-Star Russell Martin to bolster their backstop, so their questions are regarding pitching. It was an overall unsatisfying off-season in the Bronx as they struck out on all major free agents they pursued and stalwart Andy Pettitte has (so far) stayed retired. They have enough to finish second, however and have an excellent chance to reach the post-season.
Itís a new day in Baltimore for the Orioles who showed signs of life under Buck Showalter. Theyíve made some moves. It says here third place and fans start to return to Camden Yards.
The Blue Jays lost some good players, but still have some good players. They will duel the Oís for third place and finish a tick behind.
The Rays of Tampa Bay have good young talent and a lot of pitching remains, but their bullpen is a shambles and it looks like a potential last-place finish for them.
The AL Central looks to be in for a very interesting season, with three top-flight contenders and a strong chance the second place finisher will grab the Wild Card. I like the White Sox for first and the Tigers for second, with the Twins close behind, and Kansas City improving with the Indians bringing up the rear. Donít be surprised if either the ALC or the Wild Card come down to a game #163 playoff in 2011, the talent is that evenly matched.
I liked the Oakland Athletics chances in 2011 and then Andrew Bailey, their fine young closer who was Rookie of the Year in 2009 re-injured his arm this week but reports are itís ďjustĒ a strain and he will be OK. If so, I think the Aís have really improved themselves and are going to be strong contenders in the AL West. Otherwise, the Texas Rangers are going to repeat. As for the Angels and Mariners, they will be the caboose.