Sports editor Justin Guglielmetti and student writer Zane Cawthon tell you exactly what is going to happen in the American League in 2018. Stay tuned next for our take on the NL.
New York Yankees: You’ve got to love it when your favorite teams are good enough for you to tout them without being accused of homerism. When some incompetent Marlins executive named Derek Jeter traded reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton to the Yanks for a tub of Bazooka bubble gum, he all but handed baseball’s marquee division back to the Evil Empire. Aaron Judge haters can harp on his inevitable regression all they want, but this team has the potential to be the most potent offense we’ve seen in years, and I’m calling my shot right here that they will shatter the team record for home runs in a season. Oh, and did I mention that they have one of the most talented rotations in the league and possibly the most overpowering bullpen ever assembled? Sorry, Astros fans, but your emerging American League might not make it any further than year one.
Boston Red Sox: Welcome to Bahston, J.D. Martinez! Beantown hasn’t had a petulant, no-glove, righty masher in front of the Monster since Manny Ramirez, and his arrival bodes well for an offense that ranked dead last in the AL in dingers. The Sox will surround Martinez with a terrific core of under-30 stars, and I expect Mookie Betts and Chris Sale to be in the thick of MVP discussion at year’s end. Still, look for this team to fall well short of 90 wins. David Price and Rick Porcello are never going to come close to their Cy Young forms, and should Sale’s second-half failings prove to be a pattern rather than a fluke, the Sox could be relying on inconsistent knuckler Steven Wright as their ace. Scary thought.
Tampa Bay Rays: Yeesh, who’s left? The Marlins weren’t the only team to complete a fire sale this offseason, and the Rays will return almost none of their key offensive pieces from 2017’s surprise 80-win season. So why pick them third? Well, for one, this is now a two-team division with the remaining three practically an interchangeable crapshoot. But even that aside, there are things to like in Tampa. The team retained its best overall player in Kevin Kiermaier, who’s still just 27 years old. I don’t buy the noise that his defense could have declined as precipitously the advanced numbers suggest, and a small offensive leap gets him in the top-10 MVP conversation. Hot-headed Carlos Gomez might return to an All-Star level now that the pressure is off and he’s playing in front of only 37 fans. And how could you not root for a squad that’s only trotting out four starters and rolling with an all-bullpen crew for the fifth game? Evolution, baby!
Toronto Blue Jays: Jose Bautista has left the building, and it looks like the end of an era in Toronto. Their underrated rotation remains surprisingly good, led by the rock-solid trio of Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and J.A. Happ, but all the pitching in the world won’t save a team that can’t put runs on the board. The Blue Jays ranked dead last in the AL in runs scored and park-adjusted offense last year, and while a full season from perennial MVP candidate Josh Donaldson will help in that regard, they just don’t have the personnel to move into league-average territory. It’s not impossible for the Jays to be hanging around the playoff picture come midseason, but even if that’s the case, the most likely scenario is Donaldson gets shipped off for prospects and a true rebuild begins.
Baltimore Orioles: After their surprise Wild Card appearance two seasons ago, the Orioles were cellar-dwellers in 2017. Expect more of the same this year from a team that will trot out the worst starting rotation in the American League. There is plenty of power in the lineup in the likes of Manny Machado, Chris Davis, Adam Jones and Jonathan Schoop, but the team will trot out a core of free-swingers who should once again rank near the bottom of the league in OBP. That effort is not going to be enough when you’re coughing up six runs a game. Like Donaldson, Machado will probably be on his way out to a contender at the trade deadline.
Cleveland Indians: Coming off two consecutive division titles, the Tribe is the class of the Central and it isn’t particularly close. They boast the best top-to-bottom pitching staff in the league led by reigning Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and could top their own record of most strikeouts in a season. Offensively, they have a balanced attack including a 2-3-4 of Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and Edwin Encarnacion that rivals the hearts of the Yankees’ or Astros’ orders. Look for Lindor as a dark horse (a.k.a. “non-Trout”) MVP candidate after a ninth and fifth place finish his last two years. In 2016, the Cubs snatched a World Series triumph right out from under the Indians’ noses. Last season, it was a flukish homer off the unhittable Andrew Miller that proved their undoing. Could this be the year Cleveland finally breaks through and wins it all?
Minnesota Twins: Nobody really knows what to expect with the Twins, who have been engaged in a rebuild for nigh on a decade. Their last four win totals: 70, 83, 59, 85. But I believe they will build on last season’s Wild Card success and once more be right in the thick of the playoff hunt come October. Byron Buxton finally lived up to his superstar potential in the second half and will be in All-Star in 2018, Jose Berrios will approach 200 innings and top 200 Ks, and Minnesota’s sneaky-great free agent class (Logan Morrison, Lance Lynn, Jake Odorizzi, Addison Reed, Michael Pineda) will provide experience and leadership to the second youngest team in the league.
Chicago White Sox: They got a lot in return for him, and his rookie season wasn’t so hot, but I still think the Red Sox are going to rue the day they parted with Yoan Moncada. He and third baseman Matt Davidson, another breakout name to watch, have the potential to combine with Jose Abreu to form the best slugging infield in baseball. But that’s the best-case scenario, and even if it pans out, they’ll be getting the support of a bunch of beer-league softball pitchers on the mound. James Shields as an opening-day starter, really? 23-year-old Lucas Giolito is the only exciting name of the group, and though talented, it’s tough to rely on a guy who hasn’t posted more than 50 innings or a FIP below 4.9.
Kansas City Royals: Royals fans are still riding high of their 2015 World Series win after decades of misery, so you can’t blame them for remaining optimistic about their team’s chances. They’ll talk about intangibles and a terrific home crowd and cling to the remaining guys from their championship run: Mike Moustakas, Salvy Perez, Alex Gordon, Kelvin Herrera. The only problem is Perez and Gordon are old and overrated, Moustakas is going to be fuming after failing to snag a big offer in free agency and Herrera can’t create bullpen magic on his own. Bright spots exist! Speedster Whit Merrifield is a joy to watch, even if age and peripherals suggest he won’t match last year’s out-of-nowhere success, and KC should still boast an excellent defense. They just won’t be enough to get the Royals anywhere near .500.
Detroit Tigers: Still, as long as the Tigers exist, they won’t touch the cellar. Michael Fulmer and geezers Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez aside, practically none of Detroit’s biggest names from the start of last season remain. It’s a roster composed almost entirely of scrubs and washed up vets, and the only decent youngsters will more likely than not be dealt for prospects who better fit the club’s competitive timetable. Fielding wizard Jose Iglesias and Nick Castellano (he of the 30 homers, 100 RBIs and 1.5 WAR) weren’t going to save this team, but dealing guys like them could be the difference between semi-respectability and a 60-win dumpster fire.
Houston Astros: Your defending World Series champions are coming off a season of dreams. There’s absolutely no one in this division who can bring their team even close to competing with the ‘Stros. There’s depth at every position. They have the strongest bullpen in the American League, led by Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, and new kid Gerrit Cole. As long as Lance McCullers, Jr. and Charlie Morton stay healthy (which, granted, is easier said than done), it will be tough to put up runs on this team. It will be even harder with reigning AL MVP José Altuve and George Springer and Yuli Gurriel and Carlos Correa constantly finding ways to tap home base (I got chills typing out that lineup). If the newly resurrected Yankees are baseball’s Evil Empire, I guess you can call the Astros the Rebel Alliance … and we all know how “Star Wars” ends.
Oakland A’s: This is a weird place to put a team with a 75-87 record last season. But hey, the Twins grabbed a Wild Card spot last year after losing 103 games, so it’s not as weird as it may appear. You know what also may not be as weird as it appears? Oakland’s roster. Fun fact: the Athletics were a top 5 offense after the All-Star break last season. With new addition Jonathan Lucroy behind home plate, and infield wunderkinds Matt Chapman and Matt Olson returning to the dreadful multi-purpose cave that is the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, expect this team to be better suited to score some runs and make some plays. It is ambitious to put a very young, inexperienced team like this in second place (especially with such a raw, unschooled bullpen), but what’s the fun in sports predictions if you don’t put your head in the lion’s mouth every once in a while?
Los Angeles Angels: Call me stupid, call me crazy, but the LA (which really stands for “Less-Anaheim”) Angels (… of Anaheim?) are going to finish in third place this year. To say the Halos had a busy offseason would be a bit of an understatement. Then again, when in recent memory have the Angels NOT had a crazy offseason? I’m talking of course about the acquisition of Ian Kinsler and Zack Cozart to help bolster the infield. Just kidding. Japanese sensation Shohei Ohtani, who will start on the mound and round out the hitting lineup as DH without any game experience on this side of the Pacific, is this year’s grand baseball experiment. He’s the biggest name in foreign prospects since Ichiro, yet I find myself underwhelmed by his spring training performance. Of course, preseason doesn’t mean anything come Opening Day. In any case, it will be exciting to see if Ohtani can breathe some life into an otherwise aggressively mediocre bullpen and make Less-Anaheim truly competitive on both sides of the ball. Ganbatte!
Texas Rangers: I wonder if GM Jeff Banister’s “complete bullpen” strategy will truly work out in the long run? My gut says it won’t, though it might improve their win count by a small margin. What won’t improve their win count is their complete lack of offense. Who do the Rangers have? Adrian Beltre? Shin-soo Choo? Robinson Chirinos? These are the names Texas is hanging their ten-gallon hat on, but all of these players are also 34 and over and are either fragile or slowing down. With the youthful vitality of Oakland and the sheer mountain of talent in Houston and LA, there doesn’t seem to be a window for the Rangers to make any sort of competitive push in this division, especially if OF Rougned Odor and starting pitcher Cole Hamels continue to underperform.
Seattle Mariners: As my friend, long-suffering Mariners fan Mario Lanza, always says, “Hope springs eternal every year … at least until mid-April.” Indeed, Seattle looks just as poised for misery as they are pretty much every year. They went the entire offseason without so much as a sideways glance at their bullpen. But hey, after six years in the Bronx, Ichiro’s back! *crickets* Wait, no one’s excited to watch a 44-year-old future Hall of Famer quietly limp to his career’s finish line with the club he catapulted into relevance 18 years ago? Oh well. Then again, there’s definitely a possibility this could be the year the M’s finally prove everyone wrong and defy all odds on the way to their first World Series appearance. *laughs hysterically*