Throughout the season, a collaboration of writers at Baseball Essential will rank MLB teams considering record, potential, recent trends, and injuries. The rankings will be bi-monthly on the 1st and 15th of each month.
The contributing voters for the preseason American League rankings were Jon Becker, Sam Bellestri, Tyler Fiedler, Jake Hasan, Mark Hoffberg, Matthew Hutcheson, Gershon Rabinowitz, Jesus Rivera, Josh Sadlock, Brian Stoops, Chris Wickersham, and Ryan Witry.
The Angels received four first place votes and were ranked as low as fifth. Reigning American League MVP winner Mike Trout leads the Angels coming off a year when he hit .287 with 36 home runs and 111 RBI. He has led the league in WAR each of the last three seasons, even though his numbers have slowly regressed from 2012.
The new-look Mariners were ranked in the top 5 of everyone’s poll. Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma lead one of the top rotations in the American League. The duo combined for 30 wins last year. 22-year-old right-hander Taijuan Walker has likely won the job as the fifth starter. Walker had a 2.63 ERA with 34 strikeouts in eight appearances last year. Offensively, the addition of Nelson Cruz will add power and postseason experience to a young Mariners lineup. Cruz hit 40 home runs and 108 RBI with Baltimore in 2014.
The clock is ticking on the Tigers’ chances to win before general manager Dave Dombrowski is forced to make decisions on long contracts of declining players. Right-handers Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon will fill the void left by Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello in the rotation. The Tigers offense could actually be better this season with a healthy Miguel Cabrera, Jose Iglesias, Yoenis Cespedes, and an improving Nick Castellanos. Castellanos hit .259 with 11 home runs and 66 RBI in 2014. The main concern for the Tigers will be in the bullpen, which had a 4.29 ERA with a .270 batting average against last year.
The Red Sox ranged anywhere from first to ninth in the writers’ rankings. Most are concerned with the lack of an ace, but expect Boston to make a move to acquire one before the trade deadline. General manager Ben Cherington has already made several key moves since July, bringing in Rick Porcello, Joe Kelly, Wade Miley, Justin Masterson, Pablo Sandoval, Rusney Castillo, and Hanley Ramirez. Despite the plethora of veteran additions, Boston will need production from their young stars to make a run at the pennant. 22-year-old shortstop Xander Bogaerts looks to improve off a disappointing 2014 rookie campaign where he only hit .240 with 138 strikeouts.
The Blue Jays are a bit of a wild card team with the key ACL injury to Marcus Stroman in an already weak rotation. However, young hurlers Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez could fill the void. Norris had 163 strikeouts in 125 innings in the minors last year while Sanchez made 24 relief appearances while posting a 1.09 ERA last fall for Toronto. At the plate, the Jays feature one of the better lineups in baseball, lead by sluggers Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion. The trio could easily hit over 90 home runs this year. Dangerous power combined with the speed of young outfielder Dalton Pompey and veteran Jose Reyes give the Jays a dynamic lineup that will cause trouble for AL East pitchers.
The White Sox received two first place votes from the writers, but slipped to fifth because of several eighth place votes. They are a trendy choice with ace duo Chris Sale and Jeff Samardzija leading the way in the rotation and closer David Robertson anchoring the bullpen. American League MVP candidate Jose Abreu leads an offense that will likely see improvement with the return of outfielder Avisail Garcia and the additions of Adam LaRoche and Melky Cabrera. A player to watch in the future rotation is left-hander Carlos Rodon, who ascended to AAA after being taken at third overall in last year’s draft. Rodon had a 2.96 ERA with 38 strikeouts in nine appearances last year in the minors and has a 3.65 ERA in 12 1/3 innings so far in Spring Training.
It is easy to forget that the Orioles win 96 games last year and have won 85 games or more the past three seasons. The return of catcher Matt Wieters and young third baseman Manny Machado from injury will fill the void left by Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis in the lineup. In the rotation, watch out for Kevin Gausman. Most casual fans have never heard of the 24-year-old lefty, but he had a 3.57 ERA in 20 starts last year. He attacks hitters with mid-to-high 90s fastball and a sharp slider. He only ran into trouble last year with his control. At the plate, the Orioles can expect consistent production from Adam Jones. The four-time All-Star has finished in the top 15 of the AL MVP voting each of the last three seasons.
Cleveland is another improving team in an increasingly difficult AL Central division. They’ve quietly posted 85 and 92 wins in the last two seasons, but have did not make many additions this off-season besides slugging outfielder and first baseman Brandon Moss. The Indians have one of the best rotations you have never heard of in reigning Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar, and Gavin Floyd. In fact, the Indians had the second best ERA in the AL after the All-Star break (2.95). At the plate, the Indians are led by outfielder Michael Brantley and Jason Kipnis, who is returning from injury. Brantley hit .327 with 20 home runs and 97 RBI in 2014. Expect the Indians to surprise in September and October.
The Royals finally broke out in the American League last season, but had several key losses in Nori Aoki, Billy Butler, and James Shields to free agency. While Edinson Volquez, Kendrys Morales, and Alex Rios should fill the void well, it is tough to predict another World Series run for Ned Yost‘s team. At the plate, keep an eye out for young outfielder Lorenzo Cain, who hit .301 with 53 RBI and 28 steals in 2014. On the mound, 23-year-old Yordano Ventura looks to build off a breakout season in 2014. He had a 3.20 ERA in 30 starts and finished sixth in the AL ROY voting.
What is Billy Beane doing? America may never know. Beane dismantled a team that won 88 games last season despite a late summer collapse. The rotation is a wild card with right-handers Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin set to return from Tommy John surgery in June or July. In the lineup, the additions of designated hitter Billy Butler, third baseman Brett Lawrie, and first baseman Ike Davis will fill the holes in a lineup that hit a mere .244 last year.
There are plenty of skeptics in New York with an aging team that has very little room for improvement. Ace righty Masahiro Tanaka has a partially torn UCL, but will be the Opening Day starter. Shortstop Didi Gregorius looks to fill the massive hole left by Derek Jeter. One of the Yankees younger starters, 30-year-old Chase Headley, received a four-year, $52 million deal in the off-season. Headley has hit .310 with two home runs in fifteen games this spring.
The Joe Maddon era is over in Tampa Bay, as rookie manager Kevin Cash takes over the club in 2015. The Rays slumped to 77 wins last year after posting 90 wins or more between 2010 and 2013. In the off-season, the Rays added a few nice pieces to the bullpen in Ernesto Frieri and Kevin Jepsen and added free agent second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera to their lineup. A potential breakout player in the rotation is 25-year-old left-handed pitcher Drew Smyly. Smyly came to Tampa in the David Price deal last July and posted a 1.70 ERA with the club in seven starts.
It looks to be another rebuilding year in Arlington, as the Rangers lost Yu Darvish to Tommy John surgery this spring. On the bright side, Prince Fielder should bolster a lineup that averaged only 3.93 runs per game with a .246 batting average in 2014. 21-year-old second baseman Rougned Odor has hit .394 so far this spring with four extra base hits in 33 at bats. You cannot finish talking about the Rangers without mentioning Adrian Beltre. Beltre was one of the lone producers in a lineup that was ravaged with injuries. He hit .324 with 19 home runs and a WAR of 7, but is showing signs of aging, especially in the field.
The Astros will eventually breakout much like the Royals did in 2014, but Baseball Essential’s writers do not believe it will be this season. The highest vote the Astros received was tenth in our AL rankings. Their rotation is led by Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh. The duo combined for a 2.84 ERA with a combined 23-18 record last year. At the plate, the Astros struggled last year, managing a .242 average and 3.88 runs per game, both well below league average. They gain veteran leadership in shortstop Jed Lowrie, who was acquired in free agency after hitting a tough 2014 campaign with the Athletics. Jose Altuve, Chris Carter, and George Springer headline the rest of the lineup that will have no shortage of power this year. Carter and Springer combined for 57 home runs and 139 RBI in 233 games last year.
The Twins did not lose much in the off-season and signed beloved outfielder Torii Hunter in free agency. The Twins also signed Ervin Santana from the Braves to shore up a rotation that had a 5.06 ERA and .290 batting average against despite a breakout season by right-hander Phil Hughes. Hughes posted a 3.52 ERA and a 16-10 record in 32 starts last year in the Twin Cities. The Twins’ strength is in their youth. They have several top prospects to watch in Byron Buxton, Alex Meyer, Miguel Sano, Danny Santana, Kennys Vargas, Oswaldo Arcia, and Aaron Hicks.