AL Preview: West teams chase low-budget Athletics
The big-spending AL West also-rans of recent years once more find themselves chasing those overachieving, low-budget Oakland Athletics.
Yet Bob Melvin's A's hardly consider themselves the favorite to win a third straight West crown, not in one of baseball's best divisions that appears to have gotten even better this offseason.
"Obviously they won the last two years, so they're the team to chase," Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre said. "There are probably teams that probably don't take them seriously, but we do. They showed that they can get it done and as of right now, they're the champions of the West. So it's obviously that we're chasing them now."
While New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter tries to finish his Hall of Fame career in pinstripes the way he started it, with a World Series title, and the Detroit Tigers aim to unseat the defending champion Boston Red Sox, the West looks to be one of baseball's top divisions again in 2014.
"I think you can make a legitimate case that all five teams are better," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "You've got the Yankees and Dodgers and a number of clubs that made a lot of moves out there, Washington and others, but from a division-to-division standpoint, I don't know that any group was more active than the AL West."
Robinson Cano is the new star in Seattle — for the next decade, no less. Prince Fielder takes over in the middle of the Texas lineup after his trade from the Tigers. Sluggers Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols have something to prove for the playoff-starved Los Angeles Angels, who are feeling the pressure after missing the postseason the past four years.
Sure, the A's have made their share of moves this winter — many via trade as general manager Billy Beane often does. But Oakland's changes are minor compared to the acquisitions of Cano and Fielder.
"I think we're still trying to prove people wrong," Oakland center fielder Coco Crisp said.
Here's a look at the American League by division, in predicted order of finish:
Texas traded for Fielder, added Shin-Soo Choo for $130 million over seven years and is determined to bounce back from last fall's early exit with Yu Darvish as its ace.
Ron Washington's Rangers (91-72) lost the AL wild-card tiebreaker to Tampa Bay and hope for a World Series return this year after runner-up finishes in 2010 and '11.
The A's lost projected ace Jarrod Parker to a season-ending elbow injury, and he underwent surgery this week. That leaves another void to fill for a team that has done so well in recent years. While pitching depth has long been a focus for the organization, that will be tested early without Parker and also A.J. Grififn.
Sonny Gray, set to pitch his first full major league season after that memorable playoff duel with Justin Verlander last October, takes the ball opening day against the Cleveland Indians at Oakland.
With new closer Jim Johnson at the back end of a talented bullpen, Oakland still has plenty of confidence it can win if Crisp and the offense provides just enough support.
LOS ANGELES ANGELS
The pressure is on for manager Mike Scioscia, Hamilton and Pujols after a fourth straight season out of the playoffs, and Mike Trout can't do it all. Pujols was sidelined from July 26 on and batted .258 with 17 homers and 64 RBIs in 99 games.
This team's pitching must be far better, period, not to mention stay healthy.
Scioscia and general manager Jerry Dipoto survived for one more chance from owner Arte Moreno following the club's worst season in a decade at 78-84 — its lowest win total since 2003 despite the high-profile, expensive roster.
"We're much better when our focus is in house," Scioscia said. "We have a terrific club and we have the makings of a championship team. No matter who you're playing, you're going to face a tough opponent. There are a lot of talented teams, not only in our division but in our league."
It's the Cano show at Safeco Field but Seattle's new $240 million man is going to need help to give manager Lloyd McClendon — Jim Leyland's hitting coach in Detroit the last seven years — a successful first season in the Pacific Northwest.
Seattle will need steady production from the starting pitchers after Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma — who is recovering from a finger injury on hit pitching hand.
McClendon knows the A's are the team to beat.
"When I was with Detroit, we battled them every year in the playoffs," he said. "I don't take them lightly. This is a great division. There's a lot of talented teams in this division, including the Seattle Mariners."
Manager Bo Porter welcomes the addition of new center fielder and leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler as the Astros begin their second season in the AL West trying to fight from the bottom of one of baseball's best divisions a year after losing a franchise-worst 111 games.
Houston has spent the spring trying to find the right combination for the rotation.
The Tigers have reached the AL championship series three straight years, but a World Series title has remained elusive since 1984.
New manager Brad Ausmus takes over a team that made a couple significant changes in the offseason, trading Fielder and right-hander Doug Fister. Even without Fister, Detroit may have the AL's best rotation — assuming ace Justin Verlander comes back strong after having core muscle surgery in January.
Miguel Cabrera hopes to be healthier than last year, when he was hobbled down the stretch but still won MVP honors for the second straight year. Max Scherzer gave Detroit two major award winners by winning the Cy Young.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Kansas City's big move before last season — trading eventual Rookie of the Year Wil Myers for James Shields — did not help the Royals reach the playoffs, but their 86-76 record was their best since 1989.
The Royals acquired outfielder Norichika Aoki and second baseman Omar Infante this offseason, but Ervin Santana's departure could be costly. Kansas City signed left-hander Jason Vargas (career ERA of 4.30) in November.
Cleveland rolled to 92 wins in 2013 in its first season under manager Terry Francona. The Indians made the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and finished only a game behind Detroit in the division.
The pitching will likely determine whether Cleveland makes a return appearance in the postseason. Ubaldo Jimenez left via free agency, and John Axford replaces closer Chris Perez.
CHICAGO WHITE SOX
Even a brilliant season by left-hander Chris Sale wasn't enough to prevent 99 losses for the White Sox. Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton were brought in to boost the offense, and Adam Dunn is still around as a home run threat.
Chicago won 85 games in 2012 and nearly took the division, so the White Sox probably aren't as bad as last year's record suggests. But they have a lot of ground to make up if they want to contend again.
Once the AL Central's model franchise, the Twins have lost at least 96 games for three straight seasons. Joe Mauer's move to first base could keep his bat in the lineup more often, but the starting rotation has been unreliable for a while.
Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes signed as free agents in Minnesota's latest attempt to improve its pitching staff.
BOSTON RED SOX
The reigning World Series champion Red Sox will try to capture the magic again, minus many of those bushy beards this time. The pitching staff is led by a large group of experienced players such as Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Felix Doubront and Jake Peavy.
Boston lost Jacoby Ellsbury to the rival Yankees in free agency and must find its best fit in center field to replace him, and manager John Farrell has several options. Grady Sizemore would like to be the choice, hoping to stay healthy and play a full season to help complement slugger David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia.
NEW YORK YANKEES
Last year was closer Mariano Rivera's emotional farewell tour, but it ended without a playoff berth. Now, it's Jeter's turn — and there's no Alex Rodriguez around to provide a distraction as the longtime captain looks for one last memorable October run.
Rodriguez, a three-time AL MVP and baseball's highest-paid player, was suspended for 211 games on Aug. 5 for violations of baseball's drug agreement and labor contract. An arbitrator in January cut the penalty to the 2014 season and postseason.
Joining Ellsbury — he got a $153 million, seven-year contract — in the Bronx are fellow newcomers catcher Brian McCann, outfielder Carlos Beltran, and Japanese pitching star Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka signed a $155 million, seven-year contract in January. He was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last year while leading Rakuten to its first Japan Series title.
TAMPA BAY RAYS
The Rays kept much of their 2013 roster together to make another run — including three-time All-Star and ace David Price. The 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner received a $14 million, one-year deal.
First baseman James Loney received a new $21 million, three-year contract, while new closer Grant Balfour signed for $12 million over two years. Evan Longoria hit .269 with 32 homers and 88 RBIs in a career-best 160 games last season, his first of a $100 million, 10-year contract.
Buck Showalter can't count on Chris Davis to duplicate his sensational season in which he hit a majors-leading 53 home runs and 138 RBIs, but Baltimore's manager will sure take something close to that kind of production.
The Orioles hope the addition of Nelson Cruz on a $8 million, one-year contract will provide a boost in the lineup — and Cruz is eager for a fresh start following his 50-game suspension last year as part of the Biogenesis case.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
The Blue Jays need slugger Jose Bautista to stay healthy after he was sidelined to end the season for the second straight year. Bautista and Melky Cabrera are out to show they can be keys to a potent lineup, and Bautista hopes to return to the form of his 2010 season when he hit a club-record 54 home runs.
Also looking for a big rebound season: knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, the 2012 NL Cy Young Award winner who went 14-13 with a 4.21 ERA last year on the heels of his 20-win season for the Mets.