The American League’s 2011 season culminated in quite possibly the best
finish of all time – two walk off wins coming within three minutes of one another determined the winner of the Wild Card, the Tampa Bay Rays. The division winners were the Texas Rangers, the New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers. In the ALCS, Texas bested Detroit in six games before losing to the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. Detroit’s Justin Verlander took both the American League Cy Young and MVP awards — the first time since 1986 that a starter won both honors in the same season.
Will any team challenge the three reigning division champs? Who will take the two wild card spots? Find out after the jump:
The AL East is so crowded with great teams; the talent in this division really makes it hard to choose a winner each season. Last year, the Yankees ran away with the division while the Rays and Red Sox battled it out to the very last swing for the Wild Card. Now that there are two wild card spots, September could be a very interesting month as all three of these teams could be vying for postseason berths. However, the Red Sox are missing key arms in Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey, who are both rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. The Rays’ young pitching rotation, with the addition of MLB’s number one prospect, Matt Moore, will be tough to beat on a consistent basis and even tougher in a postseason series. The Yankees’ big issue this offseason was starting pitching — GM Brian Cashman traded for former Mariner Michael Pineda and signed longtime Dodger Hiroki Kuroda and even brought Andy Pettitte out of retirement to quell any doubts about the Bombers’ rotation. Don’t sleep on Toronto, though; if the Jays were in the AL Central or even the West, they’d contend every year. The Blue Jays will look to Jose Bautista for another year of 40+ homers and rookie Brett Lawrie is already drawing comparisons to Hall-of-Famers like George Brett. The AL East, as it seems to always do, will come down to the wire.
Honestly, no team in the Central did enough to make themselves better this offseason — that is, except for the Tigers. Detroit will be unstoppable in their division this year because of one man: Prince Fielder. Inking the 27-year old to a nine-year, $214 million contract all but wrapped up the AL Central before the season had even begun. As opening day draws closer and closer, it becomes more and more apparent that no team can stop the star-studded team that Detroit will put on the field. In addition to Fielder, Miguel Cabrera will try and defend his batting title, emerging sluggers Brennan Boesch and Ryan Raburn will see their power numbers rise, and the team’s pitching will hold to the standard of excellence seen last year. Verlander, Doug Fister, and Jose Valverde — who was a perfect 49-for-49 in saves-save opportunities last season — headline a pitching staff that is hungry for a World Series title.
The Royals can surprise this season as their young core of Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain matures over the course of the year. The Indians will succeed if Ubaldo Jimenez can return to his form from before the All-Star break in 2010 — he was 15-1 with a 2.20 ERA in 18 starts. The Chicago White Sox are rebuilding and suffered last year from a dismal season by DH Adam Dunn — after agreeing to a 4-year, $56 million deal last offseason, the notorious slugger batted an historically bad .159 and hit just 11 home runs. The Twins will try and find themselves after a horrible 2011 that saw them finish with the AL’s worst record. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau return this season from injuries that sidelined them for most of last year.
Albert Pujols, welcome to the American League. This offseason, the Angels made AL West a whole lot more interesting. For the past two seasons, the Rangers dominated out West, advancing to the World Series both years. Now, there are two World-Series-caliber teams in this division.
The Rangers’ lineup is great. Really, really great. So great that it’s been called the modern-day equivalent of “Murderer’s Row.” Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, Michael Young, Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Mike Napoli and Adrian Beltre make up the first seven hitters in the Rangers’ lineup: arrange them any which way you’d like, and you have a World Series contender.
The Angels rival the Rangers in every way possible: their lineups are both potent, both teams’ pitching staffs are incredible and CJ Wilson — who left the Rangers to sign with Anaheim this offseason – added fuel to the fire by tweeting former Angel Mike Napoli’s phone number.
There is no doubt that one of the two teams — whichever does not win the division — will be right in the middle of the wild card race.
The Seattle Mariners and Oakland A’s kicked off the season today in Japan — Seattle won, 3-1 in 11 innings — but neither team can compete with the talent-laden clubs that reside in Anaheim and Arlington.
In the East, the Yankees will take a very talented division in the season’s final days. Tampa’s young team needs a little more time to mature before it can overtake New York. Toronto and Boston will fight for the American League’s final playoff spot.
In the Central, the Tigers will come out of the gates sprinting towards October and will not see a challenge until the postseason — barring an injury to a superstar player, this division race is pretty much over already. While the bottom four teams battle for second place, Kansas City could surprise those who doubt the team’s potential.
In the West, tensions will flare as the September heat roasts Los Angeles and Texas, whose rivalry will only get hotter as the season progresses. The addition of Albert Pujols certainly makes the AL West a division to watch this season.
Click here to see the final post in this series, in which Mike Reisman and I make our final predictions for each division as well as Cy Young and MVP award winners.