Interesting Teams: 2008 AL

A few years ago, that master of anti-marketing his own product, Bud Selig, made the absurd statement that in any given year, fans of more than half of the teams in MLB don’t have any “hope and faith” due to the imbalanced market.

The statement was false on its face. In all of baseball history, no era has come close to matching the competitive balance that has existed in baseball since the free agent era began. Facile evidence supporting Selig’s claim at the time was available in the Yankees’ string of world championships from 1996-2000 (like that hadn’t happened before), missing a beat only in 1997. But since the Yankee run ended, only one team has more than one world championship and they hadn’t won since 1918. Plenty of teams on tight budgets have won and made the playoffs in the past 20 years.

That said, there is some serious bifurcation in MLB on 2008. The disparity between the vastly superior American League and the weaker Senior Circuit remains very pronounced. And while the NL, in part due to its overall mediocrity, is a pretty wide open affair, the AL has five teams who seem likely to contend for the four playoff spots, and really only two or three others who could possibly edge into the race with big years and some help from injuries or surprising collapses from the Big Five. Those five would be the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, Tigers and Angels.

One can make some sort of case that the Mariners might challenge the Angels if the Halos falter and the M’s can show that their having won 88 games despite being outscored was a matter of their getting lucky despite performances which will improve in ’08 sufficiently so that a step up from Felix Hernandez and the addition of Erik Bedard can boost them over 90 wins. I’m not holding my breath.

The Blue Jays are always on the outer rim of contention, and they won 83 games last year despite terrible seasons from Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells and Adam Lind. But even if those guys rebound (and that’s pretty likely) the Jays have already lost a key reliever in Casey Janssen, and cannot reasonably count on AJ Burnett to be healthy all season. They also can’t bank on Frank Thomas continuing to produce at 40, and he wasn’t great last year either; nor on Scott Rolen being able to play on the turf in Toronto and stay healthy. The Jays still have a mediocre lineup supporting a very good pitching staff. That’s enough to make them an Interesting Team this year, because if the Big Hurt does come through again, Lind, Wells and Overbay all play like they are capable, Rolen and Burnett do stay healthy and Dustin McGowan takes the next step up to being a solid front of the rotation starter, this team could win 90 or more games and put heat on the Yankees and Red Sox. That’s an awful lot of ifs, though. Again, no breath is being held here.

With all the bereavement over the loss of Johan Santana (merited though it is, particularly considering the relatively paltry package they got for him) it is entirely possible that the Twins’ pitching could be just as good as it was in 2007. The Twins were fourth in the AL in runs allowed in ’07. Losing Santana is no small thing, but would it really be all that shocking to see Francisco Liriano approximate Santana’s ’07 production. Granted, that’s a lot to ask, but it wouldn’t really floor you if Liriano had an ERA in the mid-3s, would it?

The Twins have a solid young staff behind Liriano, and while Livan Hernandez is probably a bad idea, he’s not as bad as last year’s waste of innings on the likes of Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson. They also still have a very good looking bullpen, especially if they don’t unload Joe Nathan. Even if they do (and they should), there are several hurlers out there who can take over the closer role and they have the depth to continue to sport a solid pen even without Nathan.

Most interesting in Minnesota is that they have finally moved to address their woefully imbalanced lineup. Adam Everett will still provide them with a lot of harmful plate appearances, but at least he makes up for it by being arguably the best defensive shortstop since Ozzie Smith. But the Twins have plugged in Mike Lamb at third who, while not a great hitter should provide some kind of production that has been sorely lacking from the hot corner in Minny for years. Brendan Harris at second won’t make any Twins fan forget the glory days of Chuck Knoblauch’s youth, much less the heady days of Rod Carew, he is a capable stick at the keystone.

The outfield/DH area is still weak, but improving. Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Delmon Young are all at least decent hitters for their spots, and it’s only matter of time before Young starts racking up all-star appearances. That time might be 2008, and solid contributions from Cuddyer and Kubel are not pipe dreams. The Twins seem intent on giving Carlos Gomez the centerfield job, even though he looked very much like a player who needed more minor league time last year. But they like him and if they’re right that he’s ready to at least get on base at an acceptable clip, putting all this together with the Twins’ M&M Boys (Mauer and Morneau) could turn out a pretty decent lineup. Like the Jays, a lot has to fall into place, but if it does, the Twins could squeak into the margins of the wild card race. That makes them an Interesting Team.

Given the state of the White Sox minor league system and the age of its roster, I don’t blame them for trying to go for it this year. But sorry, Pale Hose fans, I’m not drinking the kool-aid on this one. Too many erratic pitchers, too many aging or infirm position players…bringing in Nick Swisher and Carlos Quentin doesn’t strike me as nearly enough to make this team Interesting in 2008.

The A’s upside is .500 or a little better, the Rangers’ not even that. The Royals seem to have turned a corner in building a credible organization, but they have a long way to go before they’re Interesting, much less contenders. Some say the same about the Orioles, but I’m not sold that Peter Angelos will be able to stand losing for a few more years while Andy MacPhail rebuilds the farm system. They’re your winners in the “No Hope and Faith” Derby.

So, five teams are the cream of the crop (New York, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit and Los Angeles), five are clear also-rans (Oakland, Texas, Baltimore, Chicago and Kansas City) and I’ve named three (Minnesota, Seattle and Toronto) as Interesting.

There’s one more team I’d call Interesting in 2008, even though, unlike the other three, I see no chance for them to compete for a playoff spot this year. But they are building a most intriguing team going forward with some great drafting and smart trades, they look much improved for this year and they have a TON more talent coming up the pipeline. Amazingly, that team is the Tampa Bay Rays, sans Devil.

After they acquired Matt Garza from the Twins, the Rays suddenly had three starters who could easily go toe-to-toe with the top threes of New York, Boston, Cleveland and the Angels. True, there’s a steep drop after them and the bullpen, while significantly improved, is still a liability. But there will be a lot more days in 2008 when the Rays pitch well than in 2007. They won’t win with their pitching, but they’ll be a decent team when you look at their lineup.

Before moving on to that, a word about Tampa’s defense. In 2007, it was truly awful, very much compounding the pitching problems they were having. With Evan Longoria moving Akinori Iwamura over to second (where he’s still likely to stink, but perhaps just a little less), which was a defensive problem for Tampa last year anyway, and Jason Bartlett replacing Brendan Harris at short, the Tampa defense should leap forward. Carl Crawford is the best defensive left fielder in the game, and while BJ Upton is not likely to ever remind anyone of Richie Ashburn, centerfield is easily his best position and he’ll have a year of experience under his belt. If Rocco Baldelli can actually play a significant number of games in right (a big if, especially when the options are two statues out there, Jonny Gomes and Cliff Floyd) the Rays could have an above average outfield as well. If that happens, their pitching will get a big boost after playing in front of one of the game’s worst fielding teams last year. If Scott Kazmir and James Shields don’t feel they have to strike guys out to get out of an inning, it can only help their health, confidence and effectiveness.

Last year, Tampa was a decent eighth in the AL in runs. With the injection of Longoria into the lineup, Upton being comfortable in his position for the first time ever, Crawford continuing to improve, Carlos Pena having finally found himself, and a decent crop of complimentary hitters in Floyd, Gomes, Iwamura, Bartlett and Baldelli, the Rays should step up despite having traded Delmon Young. Catcher Dioner Navarro (who I’ve been rooting for for years) may have finally hit his stride in the second half last year, when he hit .285/.340/.475. While this isn’t (yet) a lineup that can compete with New York, Boston and Detroit, it may well be a lineup with no serious holes, one which can score consistently even if it is not quite spectacular.

Tampa has tons of young talent in both the high and low minors, so if some guys falter or get some boo-boos they have the resources to replenish the tank in-season without jeopardizing their future. They have a smart front office and, in Joe Maddon, one of the game’s better managers. There’s an awful lot to like here and, while the Rays won’t be showing up in rear-view mirrors in Boston and New York yet, there’s a lot to like here. I don’t think a .500 record is out of the question for 2008, and for the first time in Rays history. I definitely see them well out-pacing the woeful Orioles and possibly even putting some serious heat on Toronto. Third place is not out of the question for the Rays, and given this team’s abysmal history and the fact that they look like they’[re going to be a lot of fun to watch, they are the one non-contender that makes the Interesting Team list. And they do it with a bullet.

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