Dan's Dugout: New Faces in New Places Shape AL Races • Latino Sports

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Dan’s Dugout: New Faces in New Places Shape AL Races

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WARWICK, RI — As veteran baseball writers realize, predictions made in February sometimes dissipate even before spring training ends.

Injuries, trades, or the unexpected emergence of a hot rookie suddenly ready for prime time can change the outlook in a hurry.

Former MVP Josh Donaldson will miss most of spring training with a calf injury

Former MVP Josh Donaldson will miss most of spring training with a calf injury

Consider the Toronto Blue Jays, jarred Sunday by the news that Josh Donaldson, arguably their best player, will miss at least a month with a calf injury.

History suggests that such injuries are often more serious, perhaps translating to the Achilles, and certainly jeopardizing the chances that all players approach Opening Day on equal footing.

At Latino Sports, however, we believe that preseason prognostications are one of the joys of baseball writing. We’ve already presented the National League, so here’s how the American League should finish:

Eastern Division

1. Boston Red Sox – Big Papi is gone but Chris Sale has sailed into town as the best possible roster replacement. A blue-chip rookie in Red Sox livery, Andrew Benintendi won’t match the lefthanded power of David Ortiz but will hit for average, add speed to a lineup that needs it, and join Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts in forming a formidable outfield trio. Mitch Moreland, snatched from Texas via free agency, succeeds Big Papi as DH, but Hanley Ramirez could wind up at either infield corner – depending upon the weight issues of Pablo Sandoval. There’s no question about the All-Star DP tandem of Dustin Pedroia and Xander Bogaerts, the rotation topped by lefties Sale and David Price, or fireballing closer Craig Kimbrel. Even if Rick Porcello deson’t repeat his Cy Young season, the Sox could win in triple digits this season.

Will Boston miss David "Big Papi" Ortiz? Credit: Bill Menzel

How much will Boston miss Big Papi?
Credit: Bill Menzel

2. Baltimore Orioles – Buck Showalter’s best bet is to take a page from the Earl Weaver playbook and wait for the three-run homer. The Birds just missed having four 30-homer men last year and have two former home run champions in Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo. Either could hit 50 in the Baltimore bandbox, though Manny Machado remains the best player on the roster. The O’s need the long ball because their pitchers yield too many. After Chris Tillman, Kevin Gausman, and the promising Dylan Bundy, the starting rotation isn’t much, though lefty closer Zach Britton (0.54 ERA and 47-for-47 in save chances) should have won the 2016 AL Cy Young Award.

3. Toronto Blue Jays – Losing Edwin Encarnacion to Cleveland by free agency, coupled with the Donaldson injury and Jose Bautista decline, make the once-formidable Blue Jays less imposing. Kendrys Morales, who hit 30 homers for Kansas City, fills the DH void and could team with Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki, and Donaldson (if healthy) in a 30-homer quartet. Catcher Russell Martin helps too. But the pitching will have to survive the free-agent losses of R.A. Dickey and Brett Cecil. The Jays will bank on 20-game winner J.A. Happ, American League ERA king Aaron Sanchez, and holdovers Marcus Stroman and Marco Estrada.

4. Tampa Bay Rays – Only one team scored less runs than the Rays last summer, when a pop-gun attack sabotaged a decent pitching staff. Despite a low-budget operation, the team added Wilson Ramos and Colby Rasmus as free agents, beefing up an order anchored by Evan Longoria, Brad Miller, and Corey Dickerson – all 30-homer candidates. Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, and Jose DeLeon top a pitching staff that also features star closer Alex Colome (1.91, 37 saves) and comeback contender Alex Cobb.

Gary Sanchez made Brian McCann expendable. Credit: Cesar Diaz

Gary Sanchez made Brian McCann expendable.
Credit: Cesar Diaz

5. New York Yankees – The kids are coming. Finally. Now that Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez are history, the young Yanks can write a new one. Things got off to a rough start when Tyler Austin, groomed as half of a first-base platoon with Greg Bird, fractured his foot with a foul ball and won a spot in the disabled list for six weeks. Signee Chris Carter (41 HR for Milwaukee) could help, along with fellow vet Matt Holliday, but no Yankee is a lock for 30 homers. The key kids are catcher Gary Sanchez, rightfielder Aaron Judge, and infielder Ronald Torreyes. After Opening Day starter Masahiro Tanaka, the rotation is rocky but at least closer Aroldis Chapman returns to make ninth innings exciting.

Central Division

1. Cleveland Indians – After coming within an inch of their first world title since 1948, the Indians are anxious to end their drought. AL RBI king Edwin Encarnacion joins a lineup that already includes Carlos Santana, Francisco Lindor, and comeback candidate Michael Brantley. Since the Tribe finished fifth in runs last year, there should be support for a pitching staff intact again after an injury-riddled postseason. Starters Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, and Carlos Carrasco join lefty closer Andrew Miller, a World Series standout, as potential All-Stars.

2. Detroit Tigers – Owner Mike Ilitch, who just died at age 87, was

Justin Verlander is still the big pitcher in Detroit

Justin Verlander is still the big pitcher in Detroit

disappointed his veteran club failed to earn its stripes last year. But things should be better now that Jordan Zimmermann, imported from Washington, is over his neck injury. He’ll join Justin Verlander and AL Rookie of the Year Michael Fullmer is a powerful Big Three at the top of the rotation, backed by veteran closer Francisco Rodriguez. Tiger thumpers range from erstwhile Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera to Justin Upton, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, and Ian Kinsler.

3. Kansas City Royals – With free agency in the near future for a host of Royal regulars, the 2017 season may be the last grasp at contention for awhile. Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Sal Perez, and newcomer Brandon Moss bring the big bats with help from Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and ex-Cub Jorge Soler (acquired for Wade Davis). Danny Duffy, Jason Hammel, and Ian Kennedy are the top starters while relievers Kelvin Herrera and Joakin Soria hope to pick up where Davis left off before leaving for the Cubs.

4. Chicago White Sox – Determined to rebuild rapidly even if it means sacrificing a season or two, the Sox are slicing veterans like a butcher in a kosher deli. Gone are Sale and Adam Eaton, with Jose Quintana, David Robertson, Melky Cabrera, and Todd Frazier virtually certain to get exit visas of their own. Jose Abreu should be safe after a 100-RBI season. Sox fans will need scorecards to figure out who’s who beyond rookie hot-shot Yoan Moncada at second base,

It will be a tough year in Minnesota for Hall of Famer Paul Molitor

It will be a tough year in Minnesota for Hall of Famer Paul Molitor

5. Minnesota Twins – After losing 103 games, there’s only one way for this once-proud franchise to go. Law of Averages. If Hall of Famer Paul Molitor wants to become a player-manager, that might help. There’s some power in Brian Dozier and Miguel Sano but Joe Mauer is on the decline and Byron Buxton is still more suspect than prospect. The only returning starter with double-digit wins is lefty Hector Santiago, though a comeback by injured closer Glen Perkins would help.

Western Division

1. Houston Astros – It all depends upon pitching. If Dallas Keuchel (shoulder), Lance McCullers (elbow) and newcomer Charlie Morton (hamstring) stay healthy, the Astros could jump from third to first in a tough division. They’d team with Collin McHugh and Mike Fiers in a solid rotation but more is expected from closer Ken Giles. MVP candidate Jose Altuve tops a lineup of sluggers that includes Evan Gattis, Carlos Correa, and newcomers Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann. Rookie Yulieski Gurriel should fit in somewhere.

2. Seattle Mariners – Trade-happy general manager Jerry DiPoto has not only

Ex-Yankee second baseman Robinson Cano is a hit in Seattle

Ex-Yankee second baseman Robinson Cano is a hit in Seattle

revamped his roster but improved it. A team that finished third in the AL with 768 runs scored could score even more now that Jean Segura, Jarrod Dyson, and Danny Valencia have joined an order anchored by Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, and Nelson Cruz. There’s a solid rotation in Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton, and Yovani Garrado plus a decent pen led by submarining closer Steve Cishek.

3. Texas Rangers – No way will the Rangers win their third straight AL West crown. Their pitching just doesn’t match their hitting – not even with the left-right tandem of Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish at the top of the rotation. Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross will try to fill spots opened by free agent defections, while returning veteran Mike Napoli and perennial problem child Josh Hamilton hope to compensate for the losses of Carlos Beltran and Ian Desmond. Back are two 30-homer sluggers, Adrian Beltre and Roughned Odor, along with Carlos Gomez and comeback candidate Shin-Soo Choo. Having star catcher Jonathan Lucroy from Day One helps.

4. Oakland Athletics – Unless solid pitching surfaces soon, a 100-loss campaign can’t be avoided. No A’s pitcher posted double-digit wins last year and erstwhile ace Sonny Gray wasn’t as bright as his name suggests. The bullpen boasts three potential closers in Ryan Madson, Santiago Casilla, and John Axford but their own guarantee is tons of innings. Khris Davis and Marcus Semien get help on offense from newcomers Trevor Plouffe and Rajai Davis, the league’s leading base-stealer last summer.

Mike Trout is always an MVP contender

Mike Trout is always an MVP contender

5. Los Angeles Angels – In five seasons, Mike Trout has been American League MVP twice and runner-up three times. But he can’t do it alone. Albert Pujols, another future Hall of Famer, adds power while shortstop Andrelton Simmons delivers the best defense in the majors. But, barring comebacks from starter Garrett Richards and closer Huston Street, Angel pitchers wear no halos.

About Dan Schlossberg

Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ has produced 35 baseball books, including autobiographies of Ron Blomberg, Al Clark, and Milo Hamilton. Also a broadcaster, he is the host and executive producer of Braves Banter and Travel Itch Radio and a contributor to Sirius XM.

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