Forecast: American League preview

Originally Published: March 26, 2014
ESPN.com

It's Day 2 of our first ESPN MLB Forecast.

After rolling out a preview for all 15 teams in the National League as well our predictions for how each team will do this season in the Senior Circuit on Tuesday, we now turn to the American League.

For our results, we surveyed our Forecast panel on each topic.

Without further ado, let's take a close look at the league that features the defending champions.

• Forecaster: American League standings
• Forecaster: AL awards »
• Forecaster: National League standings
• Forecaster: NL awards »

American League East

1. Boston Red Sox

Buster Olney @Buster_ESPN: Turning the page on Boston's 2013 championship and refocusing for 2014 seems completely reflexive for the Red Sox players, given that a strength of Dustin Pedroia, Mike Napoli et al is to focus on each pitch in each at-bat in each game. They're ready for the next challenge.

David Schoenfield @dschoenfield: The Red Sox led the majors in runs scored in 2013, scoring 57 more runs than the Tigers, but you have to wonder if they will have that caliber of attack again. They must replace Jacoby Ellsbury's offense in center field, whether from Jackie Bradley Jr. or Grady Sizemore, who hasn't played a full season since 2008, and hope that 38-year-old David Ortiz can have another big season and that rookie Xander Bogaerts lives up to the hype. In the rotation, Clay Buchholz was stellar when on the mound and John Lackey had his best season in years. Can they be that effective again? Closer Koji Uehara had one of the most dominant relief seasons ever but has never had completely healthy back-to-back seasons in the majors. Still, Boston's depth in the lineup, bullpen and rotation makes it a solid favorite to return to the postseason.

2. Tampa Bay Rays

David Schoenfield: The Rays have won at least 90 games in each of the past four seasons and five out of six, although they have lost in the division series in three of the past four postseasons. Look for the Rays to battle the Tigers for the best pitching staff in the AL, even with Jeremy Hellickson starting the season on the DL. (He wasn't that good last year anyway.) David Price should be a Cy Young contender, Matt Moore went 17-4 with a 3.29 ERA in 2013 and could be even better, Alex Cobb is one of the most underrated starters in the majors, and Chris Archer could have a breakout year in his first full season. Offensively, the Rays didn't make any big changes, so they need Wil Myers to improve in his sophomore season, Evan Longoria to do Evan Longoria things and maybe center fielder Desmond Jennings to improve on his .252/.334/.414 line from last year. They will be great at run prevention, but the offense will dictate a return trip to October baseball.

Buster Olney: This might be the best Tampa Bay team we've seen in this run of contenders that the front office has put together -- a deep, talented rotation and a solid every-day lineup. To catch Boston, however, the Rays will again have to piece together a bullpen.

3. New York Yankees

Jim Bowden @JimBowdenESPNxm: After missing the postseason last year for the first time since 2008, the Yankees committed $454 million in the offseason on five free agents -- Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Hiroki Kuroda -- all in an effort to win one final time with longtime captain Derek Jeter on the team. Jeter is set to play the final season of his 20-year career in 2014 before retiring. Despite questions that still need to be answered at second base, at third base and in the bullpen, the Yankees are primed to be right in the thick of the race for the AL East title or at the very least as one of the two AL wild-card teams.

Christina Kahrl @ChristinaKahrl: The last time the Yankees missed the postseason, they made big additions (CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira) and won the World Series. Will doubling down with the quartet of Tanaka, Ellsbury, Beltran and McCann help them repeat that trick? Or will an aging roster, mystery infield and Mo-free bullpen reduce Jeter's final season to also-ran status?

4. Baltimore Orioles

Jayson Stark @jaysonst: Is this the deepest lineup in baseball? Seriously. The Orioles led the sport in homers last year (212) and added a prototype Camden Yards hitter, Nelson Cruz, who is coming off an excellent spring. Another question: Is there a team that catches the ball better than the Orioles? Manny Machado is a Web Gem waiting to happen. They run six Gold Glove finalists out there every night. Luke Appling once committed more errors in a season by himself than the entire Orioles team committed last year (54). So with all that going for them, this can be a playoff team if ... Tommy Hunter (or someone else) turns into a reliable closer ... Ubaldo Jimenez's big second half in Cleveland last season wasn't a mirage ... they hit on the roll-the-dice signings of Johan Santana and Suk-min Yoon ... their brightest young hopes -- Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy and Jonathan Schoop -- make an impact ... all their health luck is good, starting with Machado and his famous medial patellofemoral ligament.

Dan Szymborski @DSzymborski: For three months, it appeared as if the Orioles were going to sit on their hands the second straight offseason, doing little to improve their team in arguably baseball's toughest division. The O's finally made their splash, signing Jimenez and then Cruz. Baltimore is still missing that ace who can go against Justin Verlander or Yu Darvish but now has one of the deeper rotations in baseball. The team really needs Chris Davis to repeat his 2013 performance; otherwise Baltimore is still among the second tier of AL wild-card contenders. A 90-win season wouldn't be shocking, but neither would an 80-win year.

5. Toronto Blue Jays

Buster Olney: It's unusual to see a last-place team bet on what will essentially be the same cast for the next season, but that's what the Jays are doing. They have to hope that R.A. Dickey and the rest of the rotation is better and that Jose Bautista, Brett Lawrie and others stay healthy -- or there could be change in the winter.

Jayson Stark: You know, there is a reason so many of us media geniuses picked the Jays to win this division last spring. It's called talent. But last year they got to run their projected lineup out there for only three games all season. If they can actually keep Bautista (coming off an awesome spring), Jose Reyes, Lawrie and this core on the field, this is a lineup no pitcher would want to face. But there is also a reason GM Alex Anthopoulos took so much heat for not signing a big-name free-agent starter. This team's rotation just doesn't look ready for the wilds of the AL East. As one scout put it, "That AL East is not a real good place not to have pitching." Maybe an excellent bullpen can cover up the lack of dominant starters. Maybe the Blue Jays will get more than anticipated out of promising young starters like Drew Hutchison. Maybe their best young arms, Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, show up in midseason and do a Sonny Gray impression. But this staff will need all of that.

American League Central

1. Detroit Tigers

Jayson Stark: The Tigers still kick off their rotation with two Cy Youngs (Justin Verlander/Max Scherzer) and the ERA champ (Anibal Sanchez). They still have an awesome top of the order (Ian Kinsler/Torii Hunter/Miguel Cabrera/Victor Martinez). But look a little more closely. This is a very different Tigers team. This lineup doesn't hang out on Thunder Road anymore, not with Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta gone and catcher Alex Avila's slugging percentage down 130 points since 2011 (.376 last season). So Cabrera and Martinez had better stay healthy. There are questions on the left side of the infield, where Nick Castellanos just moved back to third base from the outfield and Jose Iglesias' shin issues have turned shortstop into a work in progress. And even with the signing of Joe Nathan to get the ninth inning settled down, is there anyone in this bullpen who can handle all those other innings, now that Bruce Rondon (Tommy John surgery) is done for the season? While this team still looks like the AL Central favorite, there's more heat on the Tigers' marquee attractions to stay healthy and productive than ever before.

David Schoenfield: It starts with two-time AL MVP Cabrera and three Cy Young candidates in 2013 winner Scherzer, 2011 winner Verlander and reigning AL ERA champ Sanchez. Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly round out a rotation that could be the best in baseball. New manager Brad Ausmus brings a new closer with him in Nathan, but remember that Joaquin Benoit (the Tigers' primary closer last year, now with the Padres) had a 2.01 ERA and Smyly (a reliever all of last season) had a 2.37 ERA; that back of the bullpen was actually pretty solid last year. The big change was the trade of Fielder for Kinsler, which moves Cabrera back to first base and clears room for rookie third baseman Castellanos. The Tigers have a gaping hole at shortstop with Iglesias possibly out for the year. They are the heavy favorites to win the Central, but this team lacks depth behind the five-man rotation and the bench is awful, so they need to stay healthy.

2. Kansas City Royals

Jerry Crasnick @jcrasnick: The Royals took a significant step forward with 86 victories last season, and anything other than a playoff berth is going to be a disappointment. With three Gold Glovers (Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon) and an emphasis on athletes around the field, they play as entertaining a brand of defense as any team in the majors. Hosmer keeps getting better, and no less an authority than George Brett thinks Mike Moustakas is ready for a breakout year. Luke Hochevar's elbow injury hurt the bullpen depth, but the Royals have lots of power arms to bridge the gap from the starters to closer Greg Holland. Yordano Ventura and his 100 mph fastball will be fun to watch at the back end of the rotation, and it won't surprise anyone if Danny Duffy and Kyle Zimmer arrive from the minors to contribute at some point this season. Detroit is still better than Kansas City on paper, but the Royals are a good bet to pass Cleveland and take second in the AL Central.

Jim Bowden: The Royals could make the playoffs for the first time since Brett was their third baseman in 1985. They have arguably the best overall defense (including five players nominated for Gold Gloves last year) and bullpen (which led the AL in ERA last year) in the American League. Hosmer and Perez are primed to have breakout All-Star, Silver Slugger and Gold Glove-type seasons while rookie pitchers Zimmer and Ventura could be the difference-makers by season's end.

3. Cleveland Indians

David Schoenfield: The Indians made their first playoff appearance since 2007 last season, finishing just one game behind the Tigers. The teams probably weren't as close in talent as the standings indicated considering the Tigers had a plus-172 run differential while the Indians were at plus-83. Plus, the Indians must replace Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, who combined to make 61 starts and pitched 340 2/3 innings. A full season from Danny Salazar, who sizzled with his blazing fastball in 10 starts, will help, while Carlos Carrasco and Shaun Marcum are the shaky candidates for the final spot. The offense was a solid fourth in the AL in runs scored but may have to do better to counteract the likely decline in pitching. Moving catcher Carlos Santana to third base will help the attack if he can play the position defensively, but the Indians will need free agent David Murphy to have a bounce-back year in the outfield and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera to produce more than a .299 OBP. John Axford takes over as closer, but he has been shaky after a stellar 2011 with Milwaukee, so Cody Allen may eventually take over.

Jim Caple @jimcaple: The Indians lost Jimenez and Kazmir, but they still should have a decent season. The question is whether the September schedule will be favorable enough to help Cleveland get to the postseason as was the case last year. Don't count on it.

4. Chicago White Sox

David Schoenfield: The White Sox are coming off a 99-loss season, the worst in franchise history since 1970. The offense scored just 598 runs, 150 fewer than in 2012, so the front office spent the offseason remaking the lineup. Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu was the biggest addition, and the projection systems see a hitter who could hit .280 with 30 home runs. Center fielder Adam Eaton and third baseman Matt Davidson were acquired from the Diamondbacks, bringing some more youth, and right fielder Avisail Garcia will get his first shot at a full season in the majors. It's probably not enough to make the offense playoff-caliber, but it should be a big improvement over 2013. Underrated Chris Sale is one of the best starters in baseball, coming off a 3.07 ERA while averaging more than a strikeout per inning. He is a legitimate ace, but the rotation is counting on rookie Erik Johnson and John Danks returning to his 2008 to 2010 form. They are a lot more interesting than last year, but the Sox are still short of a playoff team.

Jerry Crasnick: General manager Rick Hahn has quietly done a nice job of changing the long-term outlook in Chicago. The Sox have improved their farm system and upgraded their international scouting operation. They've also begun the transition from an older, station-to-station team to a younger, more athletic group with the addition of Garcia, Abreu, Eaton and Davidson over a five-month span. But White Sox fans hoping the moves help the team make an immediate impact in the AL Central will have to exercise patience. The Sox need someone to emerge from the Danks-Johnson-Jose Quintana-Felipe Paulino quartet to become staff ace Sale's primary wing man, and manager Robin Ventura entered the waning days of spring training trying to decide whether Nate Jones or Matt Lindstrom would begin the season as the team's closer. Barring lots of pleasant surprises, the Sox will finish fourth in the division.

5. Minnesota Twins

Jim Bowden: The best part of the 2014 season for the Twins will come in July when they host the All-Star Game. The Twins are destined for another last-place finish. However, they will be a lot more competitive with a starting rotation capable of going deeper in games thanks to the free-agent signings of Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Mike Pelfrey. Outfielder Byron Buxton, the Twins' top prospect, could make his debut in September, but it will be 2015 before he and their other top prospect, third baseman Miguel Sano (sidelined this season after undergoing Tommy John surgery), will be ready to make an impact.

Christina Kahrl: Joe Mauer's move to first base fuels hopes he can be an MVP-caliber player again, and buying two midrange starting pitchers in Nolasco and Hughes will keep them in games. They will be more competitive, but it's a warm-up for top-tier prospects like center fielder Buxton and right-handed pitcher Alex Meyer in the second half and third baseman Sano next year.


American League West

1. Oakland Athletics

Jerry Crasnick: The Athletics are short on superstars. But as general manager Billy Beane points out, they have 25 good players on the roster. They were also enthused about their pitching depth until Jarrod Parker, their projected Opening Day starter, went down for the season with his second elbow reconstruction and A.J. Griffin went on the shelf for a month with flexor tendinitis. The A's are a tightly knit, tough-minded team, but the loss of Parker is clearly going to hurt. It forces Sonny Gray into an even more prominent role in front of Dan Straily, Scott Kazmir, Tommy Milone and Jesse Chavez and could put pressure on the Oakland bullpen as the season progresses. Manager Bob Melvin does a great job of keeping this team on an even keel, and the A's have showed their mettle with back-to-back division titles. They justifiably have designs on a deep postseason run, but first they have to outlast the Rangers and Angels in a challenging AL West.

Buster Olney: The spring injuries to Parker and Griffin gashed what was probably the best part of the Oakland roster -- the depth in the rotation. The A's have a dominant bullpen, potentially, and a lot of useful position players. Then again, with Oakland, isn't saying the Athletics have little margin for error redundant?

1. Texas Rangers

Jim Bowden: The Rangers have rebuilt their lineup thanks to the free-agent signing of Shin-Soo Choo and trade for first baseman Prince Fielder. Choo will give the Rangers an on-base machine as the leadoff hitter, and Fielder will give them the left-handed power hitter in the middle of the lineup they've lacked since Josh Hamilton left via free agency after the 2012 season. The Rangers do have questions in the back of their rotation and at the closer's role that will have to be answered if they're going to win the division.

David Schoenfield: For the fourth straight season, the Rangers won 90-plus games but endured bitter disappointment. Two straight World Series defeats have been followed by exits in the wild-card game (2012) and then in the tiebreaker game last season, a 5-2 loss to the Rays. Especially bitter was that both the wild-card loss and tiebreaker defeat came at home. The Rangers have revamped an offense that scored 125 fewer runs last season than it did in 2011 by adding some much-needed left-handed bats in Fielder and Choo. Those two ranked 28th and fourth in the majors in OBP, respectively. Jurickson Profar, the No. 1 prospect in baseball heading into 2013, takes over for the traded Ian Kinsler at second base and should match Kinsler's offense. With Derek Holland out at least half the season and Matt Harrison likely to miss at least a few starts, Yu Darvish is the only proven workhorse in the rotation. Martin Perez and Alexi Ogando have good arms while shaky vets Joe Saunders and Tommy Hanson begin the year in the 4- and 5-holes. The Rangers will have to rely on their deep bullpen early on. If the rotation holds up, the Rangers should again contend for the AL West title.

3. Los Angeles Angels

Jim Bowden: Mike Trout is the favorite to win the AL MVP this year after finishing second to Miguel Cabrera the last two seasons. Both Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton should be comeback player of the year candidates. Pujols is finally healthy, and Hamilton has gained 20 pounds of strength back. The Angels' season will depend on the young arms of Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago. They have little rotation or position player depth and are not equipped to withstand significant injuries, which could be their downfall.

Jerry Crasnick: The Angels arrived in spring training and instantly began talking about erasing the unpleasant memories of 2013, when they got off to an 11-22 start and buried themselves in the AL West. Other than the early Achilles injury that ended Mark Mulder's comeback, the spring went about as well as manager Mike Scioscia could have hoped. Pujols is healthy and focused on re-establishing himself as one of baseball's great players. Hamilton returned from a calf injury in mid-March and should be ready to go, and Trout logged a 1.343 OPS in his first 16 games in the Cactus League. He is incapable of coasting even when the results don't matter. Ultimately, the team's fortunes will hinge on general manager Jerry DiPoto's offseason quest to upgrade the rotation. If Skaggs, Santiago and Richards can slot in and be productive behind Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, the Angels will contend for a wild-card berth. Given the potential pitching issues in Oakland and Texas, they could make a run at the division title.

4. Seattle Mariners

Jim Caple: With an aching starting rotation, a suspect infield and an even more questionable outfield, the Mariners' prospects better come through (though they rarely do for Seattle) or Robinson Cano will soon regret not settling for less money elsewhere.

David Schoenfield: They gave $240 million to Cano, but what else did they do to improve a team that went 71-91 and has averaged 94 losses over the past four seasons? Well, they signed Corey Hart, who missed all of last season. They acquired Logan Morrison, who has had knee injuries and hit .236 the past two seasons. They signed closer Fernando Rodney, but that's hardly a cure for a pitching staff that allowed the fourth-most runs in the AL even though it had Hisashi Iwakuma (third in the AL Cy Young voting) and Felix Hernandez. The Mariners ranked second in the majors in home runs but just 22nd in runs scored, showcasing the on-base problems with the offense. To provide support for Cano, they will need big improvement from the young players; shortstop Brad Miller and catcher Mike Zunino are the latest hopes, but Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak will apparently be given one more chance to prove themselves. The rotation is already banged up with Iwakuma (finger) and rookie Taijuan Walker (shoulder) beginning the year on the disabled list. In other words, it may not be long before Cano wonders what he got himself into.

5. Houston Astros

David Schoenfield: They traded for Dexter Fowler and signed Scott Feldman, but the Astros could still be headed for a fourth straight 100-loss season and a fourth straight first overall pick in the June draft. After all, the Astros lost 111 games in 2013 and will bring back largely the same cast of characters. They probably won't lose 111 again -- they can't possibly lose 17 games they led going into the eighth inning again, can they? -- but some signs of progress would be nice. Young starters Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholtzer and Brad Peacock will get a chance to prove themselves over a full season while outfielder George Springer and first baseman Jonathan Singleton should make it up to the big leagues at some point. Still, just finishing out of fifth place would be an achievement for this team. Then again, maybe the front office would just as much prefer that No. 1 overall pick again.

Dan Szymborski: The future's not yet the present in Houston, but after inheriting a team that was almost devoid of talent, both in the majors and minors, and short on cash, general manager Jeff Luhnow has overhauled the organization from top to bottom; Astros fans at least have some players to look forward to. Houston is still not a good team and likely to finish in the basement, but with the addition of some legitimate major league talent (Fowler) and the possibility of seeing some of the minor leaguers like Springer start graduating to the majors, they could leave triple-digit loss totals in the rearview mirror.

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