The season is nearly upon us. This means that it's time to make a fool of myself with a few predictions!
Where else can I start but the American West! Personal bias aside, I think Oakland are just about the favourites to take the West this year. The Angels will certainly run them close, and Texas have been able to improve their pitching staff so they will be dangerous. But the A's look to be the strongest unit overall, which counts for a lot during a 162 game campaign. They have a top rotation (hopefully Esteban Loaiza's spring training struggles won't last), a versatile bullpen, a great defence and a strong batting line-up. Injuries to Rich Harden and Bobby Crosby brought a halt to their challenge last season. Whilst you are always going to miss talent like that, Oakland are in a better position to cover for it this time around and that will make the difference (hopefully!). For the first time in a while Oakland have added players without losing their best performers during the off-season and that bodes well. The key to the Frank Thomas deal is that the A's are not dependent on his health to make them into a play-off team. However, should he be available in the run-in and during the play-offs he could be the difference between a good season and a World Series win. Listening to his home run on Sunday in only his second at-bat has been the highlight of spring training for me.
The Angels didn't make much noise during the off-season and they will be on a slight downward curve whilst bringing through some top prospects over the next or year or so. They are still a strong outfit, just not as strong as last season. As for the Rangers, new GM Jon Daniels has addressed the need for starting pitching by signing Millwood, Eaton and Padilla. If Hank Blalock can rebound after a disappointing 2005, the Rangers could mount a challenge, although I have my doubts that they can keep pace with the A's and Angels all season. The Mariners will finish in last position again but their fans can at least turn around and say “we've got King Felix” and you can't argue with that!
In the Central, the reigning champs will start the season as favourites. It is easy for an organisation to stand still after winning the World Series in the faith that the guys who won it all last year can do it again. The White Sox haven't fallen into this trap. Re-signing Konerko was not merely a sentimental act and he will be their main offensive threat. That being said, their other two main signings are not without risk. Vazquez has been enigmatic throughout his career, whilst Jim Thome's health is a big question mark. The youthful Indians will once again mount a major challenge and after a period of rebuilding now look set to be a fearsome team for several years to come. If the White Sox get good seasons from Vazquez and Thome then the Indians will have to wait another year before returning to the post-season. But if the White Sox slip up at all, they will be ready to pounce. The Twins are a bit of a mystery to me. They obviously have some exciting players, yet they struggled on offence last year and I don't see how the likes of Rondell White and Tony Batista are going to help them turn things around. Castillo is an upgrade at second base, and if Hunter, Morneau and Mauer have good years then their pitching might carry them further than last year. They still look like a third place team to me though.
It was a typically quiet off-season in the AL East! For all of the New York-Boston pyrotechnics, the Blue Jays stole the headlines overall. They splashed the cash and have undoubtedly improved, but have they improved enough? The length and value of the A.J./B.J. deals are on the mad side of sensible. Still, exceptional seasons from both during 2006 may make them seem worth it to Blue Jays fans if they help to break the Yankee/Red Sox monopoly. The trouble is, for Toronto to achieve their aims they will need exceptional seasons from all of their players. Everything has to fall right for them to have a chance and the odds are not in their favour. You can't fault them for taking a shot though, and it would be great to see them do it.
The BoSox and the Yanks are not without their faults. Boston will field a number of new faces this season and it will be interesting to see how they all adapt to the pressures of playing in Beantown. They needed to replace Damon, and Coco Crisp has more than just a great name in his favour. However, when I look at Mike Lowell and an ageing Jason Varitek I get the feeling that trading away Andy Marte and Kelly Shoppach for Crisp might not look such a good deal in a year or two. Still, they have a strong pitching staff and the recent additions of Wily Mo Pena and Hee-Seop Choi have supplemented a good batting line-up. In the Bronx, everyone who thought that Pavano and Wright would be disastrous last season (i.e. everyone except for the Yanks themselves) was proved right. There's little reason to believe they will improve this year and overall their pitching staff looks questionable. How important pitching is when you can field a batting line-up of Damon, Jeter, A-Rod, Sheffield, Matsui, Giambi, Posada, Williams and Cano will be an interesting plot to follow this season. A mid-season addition (Clemens for example) would really change things and the Yanks have more financial clout than anyone to make such a move.
AL West = Oakland
AL Central = Chicago
AL East = Yankees
Wildcard = Red Sox.
Nothing controversial there I'm afraid. But who knows how things will turn out.