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By Mike Ivcic
And now for the Junior Circuit. This is a league that tends to score more and pitch less, which has led them to dominate Interleague play and the All-Star game, bit has only translated into moderate success this decade in the World Series, as the leagues have split the last eight winners since the end of the Yankees dynasty. Speaking of those Yankees…
1. Boston Red Sox
2. New York Yankees
3. Tampa Bay Rays
4. Toronto Blue Jays
5. Baltimore Orioles
After a dream season that culminated in an AL East division title and a World Series appearance, the Rays will take a step back this season. While still a very good ballclub, they will struggle to overcome the traditional “World Series Hangover.” In this decade only the ’01 and ’03 Yankees have made the playoffs the year after losing the World Series. Assuming David Ortiz is healthy, the Red Sox will resume their position as the team to beat, but the improved Yankee pitching staff, with the addition of C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, will vault the Bombers back into second. The issue for New York is still the use of Joba Chamberlain as a starter when he would be one of the top set up men in baseball with J.J. Putz of the Mets by being moved to the bullpen. Until the Yanks do that, they will not be able to reach their full potential. The top three won’t be separated by much, and Tampa will likely be a part of the division race for at least a few years, but they’ll have some adversity to go through first. Toronto’s window of opportunity is quickly closing, and depending on the development of Baltimore’s younger players, the last two positions could flip-flop. Don’t be surprised if the Orioles win some big games late in the season to help determine who goes to the postseason and who stays home.
1. Cleveland Indians
2, Chicago White Sox
3. Minnesota Twins
4. Detroit Tigers
5. Kansas City Royals
While this division has the least likelihood of producing a World Series champion, it might also be the most competitive from top to bottom. Cleveland has the most talent and if Cliff Lee can even come close to duplicating his season from last year and the offense can click earlier in the season, they should be able to win the division. The closest competition will come from the two teams that played in a one-game playoff for last year’s title, Chicago and Minnesota. The White Sox still have Paul Konerko and Jim Thome, but it was the emergence of Carlos Quentin and Alexi Ramirez that sparked them last year, and will likely have to do so again with only an average starting rotation. Meanwhile, the Twins continue to carry the baton for small market teams, piecing together a competitive team every season. They have a handfull of bonafide superstars (Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Joe Nathan) and above average role players, but if they can get a full year out of Francisco Liriano then there’s a legitimate chance for Minnesota to play on to the postseason. The bottom features a perennial train wreck making a move towards respectability and a former World Series runner up turning into a train wreck. The former – the Royals – are just one more good season away from competing for that top spot, but the Tigers simply have too much talent to be as bad as they were last year, meaning there could be only a 10-12 game difference between first and last place.
1. Los Angeles Angels
2. Oakland Athletics
3. Seattle Mariners
4. Texas Rangers
The Angels have owned this division recently, and despite the loss of Mark Teixeira, should remain in first this year as well. The addition of Bobby Abreu is a steal for only $5 million, and he’ll only be a role player so the pressure will be lessened. LA will be challenged more so this year than last because all three teams also made improvements, beginning with the A’s. Oakland added some power with Jason Giambi and Matt Holliday, so the question for them is how well the relatively no-named pitching staff will perform. Seattle is hoping Jarrod Washburn and Erik Bedard can rebound from difficult seasons in ’08 to support Felix Hernandez, and the signing of Ken Griffey Jr. can’t be overlooked, but there are still too many holes to make too great a leap in one season. Finally, with still very limited pitching, Texas will continue to struggle, and the jury is still out on how well star Michael Young will take to the move to third base.
ALDS – Red Sox (East) over Indians (Central)
ALDS – Angels (West) over Yankees (WC)
ALCS – Red Sox over Angels
Three of the four best teams are in the East, but unfortunately only two can make the postseason from that division. The A’s, White Sox, and Twins all have a chance at the Wild Card as well, if the East cannibalizes each other, but talent-wise the teams in the East are better. If the Yankees don’t win the division they’d likely get the Angels, a horrible matchup dating back to 2002. The Central winner would be overmatched in any situation, and though the Indians were a game away from beating Boston in ’07, they still had C.C at that point. In a Boston-LA matchup in the LCS, history again is the telling factor – this time against the Angels, who have never beating the Red Sox in the postseason.
A prediction of a 1986 World Series rematch is not hard to imagine, though it would have been more fitting a year sooner when Shea Stadium was still around. In this matchup, it would likely be advantage Boston, with a better starting pitching staff, but as Tampa proved last year, Boston’s bullpen is hittable, an issue the Sox never addressed. The tipping point is the clutch factor – the Red Sox have done it in the past, the Mets haven’t. Assuming the AL once again wins the All-Star game, Boston takes the series in 6 to finally win it at Fenway.
Look for my weekly baseball column all season long, every Monday for the Ultimate Capper.
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