The American League?s Blue Balls

The American League is being dominated in the early season by shades of blue. Every division has a team clad in blue, in powder blue, in blue block lettering, or in a bright blue outline, leading the way. Each team, the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL East, the Kansas City Royals in the AL Central, and the Texas Rangers in the AL West, is surprised to be there. So which team will hold on to a little bit of Their Blue Heaven and which teams will come crashing down to Earth and be singing the blues by the time the pennant race really begins?

Toronto Blue Jays (23-13): 1st Place in the AL East

Everybody thought that the East would come down to a race between the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees, and the Tampa Bay Rays. However, though the Red Sox have been great (on their way to another wild card), the Yankees have been a bust at their new home and the Rays are proving to be single-season Cinderellas. Instead the Blue Jays have dominated the first fifth of the season with amazing hitting and great pitching despite multiple injuries to the starting the rotation.

After the Rays last season I have to resist my urge to quickly dismiss this early season rampage. The reality is that the most suspect part of the team, its run production may actually be sustainable.

The team’s best hitter so far, Aaron Hill, can easily be passed over as a 27 year-old that is destined to be an average infielder. He was a first round selection back in 2003 though and had a respectable breakout year two seasons ago when he hit .291, 17 homeruns, scored 87 runs and drove in 78 RBI. Last season he was injured, making this his true second season after showing some potential. So far he has nine homeruns and 30 RBI while hitting .346.

The Blue Jays also have a young 25-year-old outfielder named Adam Lind having a great beginning with six homeruns, 31 RBI, and a .328 batting average. Meanwhile Scott Rolen is doing his best impression of Chipper Jones and hitting for average after a slight plummet in his career numbers over the past four seasons.

If the offense can keep up rolling in the runs and the pitching, which is led by ace pitcher and perennial Cy Young contender Roy Halladay, only improves with the return of starters Ricky Romero, Jesse Litsch, and Case Janssen then this team could have a season long battle with the Boston Red Sox and withstand the second half Yankees run.

Kansas City Royals (18-16): Tied for 1st Place in the AL Central with the Tigers

A winning percentage of 52.9 percent may not be impressive to most teams, but these are the Royals, a team that has averaged 98 losses over the past five years, and this is Kansas City, a city whose only other sports team is the Kansas City Chiefs. They also play in the AL Central, so ending up a few games over .500 might be enough to win the topsy-turvy division.

The Royals once again have a stagnant offense, but what can anybody expect with a lineup that features Mike Jacobs, Coco Crisp, and the always promising Mark Teahen. Peter Gammons warned that this might the break through season for a number of Royals youngsters.

The team has been waiting for Teahen, Billy Butler, and Alex Gordon to develop and justify signing Marlins’ leftover Jacobs to play DH. So far this revolutionary hitting has not been there. The team ranks 11th in the AL in run production and 11th in the AL batting average. The only bright spot is that they are terrifically average in terms of power in the AL with a .417 slugging percentage good enough for 7th in the league.

The real strength of this team is the pitching. Specifically, the real strength of this team is starting pitcher Zach Grienke. He is 6-1 with an ERA of 0.53 and a WHIP of 0.79. He is the front runner for the AL Cy Young Award after 34 games in the season, just ask ESPN’s Buster Olney.

The problem is that the team ERA that ranks 1st in the AL with at 3.63 has two starters that have an ERA over 5.00. Kyle Davies and Sidney Ponson have the potential to kill the bullpen over the year with atrocious starts every other time. Davies might improve since he is a young starter at 25 years old still learning the ropes. However, the only time you want Ponson on your team is when you are playing the Dominican Republic in the WBC, three early quality starts or not.

Also the bullpen is probably going to spread even thinner since All Star Joakim Sora just went on the 15-day DL with tenderness in his rotator cuff, a problem that might linger all season long since he already pitched in the WBC.

I think there is just too much competition in the Central. The Tigers are being driven by an urge to prove that 2006 and 2007 were not aberrations, the Twins always make a run, and the White Sox were picked to finish fourth in the division, which means they will finish first or second. The Royals simply do not have the offense to cover for the bullpen once they start getting tired.

Texas Rangers (19-14): 1st Place in the AL West

Do the Rangers have the starting rotation to go the whole season without depriving the bullpen of rest? No. Do they play in the AL West? Yes. So the very fact that this team has something working for them, an offense that makes fantasy baseball geeks squeal with joy, is enough to win in the saddest division in the entirety of MLB.

The Angels pitching dominance has come to an end. The Mariners look just as bad as last season with no hitting to go along with an average pitching staff. The Athletics are busy proving that Billy Beane’s landmark strategy has lost its allure and that the team actually needs to spend money on decent players, not decent fan favorites (Jason Giambi anyone?)

The Rangers simply have Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, Hank Blaylock, Chris Davis, and a returning Josh Hamilton. They have a power surge capable of decimating any starter. There is almost no hitter in the lineup who you can hang a curveball in front of. This does not make the team a great baseball team, but it does make the Rangers a solid contender and leader in the West.

The interesting thing is that the team ERA is only 4.69, which is good for eighth in the league. Adjust the ERA for the homerun friendly dimensions of the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington and that ERA is looking more like a solid 4.00.

I’m sure once the super-infused summer air moves in that ERA will balloon over 5.00 where it rightfully belongs. That is when the hitting will cease to be enough. The pitchers will be morally defeated by the long ball and the bullpen will be exhausted and the Angels can take over and run away with the West.

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Who Will be MLB’s Rays This Season?

Last season the Tampa Bay Rays came out of nowhere with god-like pitching, a little bit of power, and a whole lotta speed to shock every Yankees fan and die hard Red Sox faithful and win the American League East. They had the right elements and they came together at the right time. The club ultimately lost the World Series but still managed to shock the baseball-verse.

This offseason, while the experts have been pondering if the New York Yankees are really destined to return to postseason glory or if the Chicago Cubs can end their first round woes and their 100-year curse with the addition of Milton Bradley, I have been wondering who could be the pull off the next Tampa Bay Rays-type season (before last year this was known as doing a Florida Marlin turnaround).

This means that the team finished in the bottom two in their division, had a sub-.500 record in 2008, has a roster almost void of high-profile, high-priced players (i.e. a roster on a budget), and has a recent history that scares away bandwagon fans.

This leaves surprisingly few candidates. The choices are the Baltimore Orioles (68-93, 5th place AL East, 10st cheapest payroll), the Kansas City Royals (75-87, 4th place AL Central, 7th cheapest payroll), the Washington Nationals (59-102, 5th place NL East, 5th cheapest payroll), the Cincinnati Reds (74-88, 5th place NL Central, 13th cheapest payroll), and the Pittsburgh Pirates (67-95, 6th place NL Central, 4th cheapest payroll).

On paper, without considering any other factors, I have to go with the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds have a star in second baseman Brandon Phillips and three players, first baseman Joey Votto, third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, and right fielder Jay Bruce, who had near breakout seasons last year. Phillips, Votto, Encarnacion, and Bruce can all hit for power and Phillips and Votto can even near the .300 mark. The addition of Willy Taveras gives the team some pure speed on the base paths. If Taveras can find his swing from 2007, then this transplanted Rocky can terrorize pitchers into giving up a few hanging breaking pitches for the big bats.

They also have a potentially top-tiered starting rotation with Aaron Harang (who had an awful season in 2008), veteran Bronson Arroyo, future ace Edinson Volquez, and potential star Johnny Cueto. Cueto has potential. It has yet to materialize, but if this club shocks the rest of the NL Central he could find his mojo in the magic of a Cinderella season. The bullpen has some good guys to hold games with the acquisitions of Arthur Rhodes and Mike Lincoln. Perhaps most importantly, Francisco Cordero is the type of closer who is not going to blow many save opportunities.

I like the Baltimore Orioles batting lineup as well. The team shored up the only young stud they had, right fielder Nick Markakis, by finalizing a six-year, $66 million extension. He is surrounded by sound veterans. First baseman Aubrey Huff is a definite threat at the plate thanks to his power and ability to make contact. Second baseman Brian Roberts, third baseman Melvin Mora, and designated hitter Luke Scott are all veterans that can either make contact (Roberts), hit for power (Scott), or both (Mora).

The only pitcher on the entire team I am sold on is Jeremy Guthrie though. Not all Japanese imports are a guarantee, so Koji Uehara is a risk. Otherwise, a potentially crippling bullpen and a closer by committee are not going to save a starting rotation with four question marks.

Talent wise, the Pittsburgh Pirates simply do not have enough young quality players to make a competitive Triple-A ball club. The Nationals offense could explode, but the pitching is simply too awful to overcome the likes of the New York Mets, Florida Marlins, and Philadelphia Phillies.

The Kansas City Royals might be the team in the best position to make an improbable run. They have some young guys with the ability to make contact (second baseman Alberto Callaspo and shortstop Mike Aviles), they have young guys that may have some power (third baseman Alex Gordon and right fielder Mark Teahen), they actually went out and spent money on a bona fide slugger named Mike Jacobs, and they have a stellar closer in Joakim Sora.

The young starting pitching is a mystery, but the Royals also play in the AL Central. Nobody ever knows what will happen there. This is the division where experts’ predictions come to die. The favorites almost always disappoint and the only thing that can be counted on is that the Minnesota Twins will make some sort of a run at a postseason spot. Otherwise, the division is open to the flavor of the month… or season.

The Reds also are fortunate to play in the NL Central. The division is led by the Chicago Cubs, a franchise with a well-documented penchant for failure and late season collapses. The Cardinals have just entered into the beginning of a rebuilding effort, the Brewers are in trouble after failing to resign Sabathia, and the Astros will almost assuredly be advertising a fire sale if they have another slow start.

Sadly, the Orioles simply have too many teams to overcome in the AL East. The Tampa Bay Rays look more and more like a real multi-season threat thanks to the acquisition of Pat Burrell and the fact that they still have their amazing pitching staff. The New York Yankees went on a spending spree to reload the team with younger talent. The Boston Red Sox have made few moves, but the team remains complete and Jason Bay is far from a bad replacement for Manny Ramirez. Also, the Blue Jays are another solid team with good pitching and the talent in the lineup to score a few runs.

I have already commented on the Pirates and the Nationals. No amount of inspired hitting can overcome their obvious pitching deficiencies. So, my first choice to surprise this summer has to be the Royals, followed by the Reds, and finishing with the Orioles.

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