Team-by-team guide to the American League

Written By kom nampuldu on Kamis, 02 April 2015 | 18.18

A team-by-team look at the American League, in predicted order of finish:

AL East

1. Orioles

Key player: Matt Wieters. The Orioles lost Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis from their lineup and the hope has been a return to health by Wieters and Manny Machado, plus a return to full power by Chris Davis, will compensate. Baltimore is set up best if Wieters can catch, but that is trickier coming back from Tommy John surgery. Plus, he has the pressure to perform in his walk year.

Player who'll need to step up: Chris Davis. Like Wieters, Davis is a Scott Boras client in his walk year. He plummeted from 53 homers to 26 and a 1.004 OPS to .704. Plus, he missed the stretch run and playoffs when he was suspended for using Adderall. Will the real Chris Davis please stand up?

Name you'll get to know: Dylan Bundy. The Orioles have refused to invest big in starting pitching, avoiding long-term risk and believing in quality depth. But with Kevin Gausman already set for the rotation and Bundy (fully healthy after Tommy John surgery) and Hunter Harvey percolating below, they may have others to join Chris Tillman as true top-of-the-rotation pieces.

Biggest question mark: Can Manny Machado, who has needed major surgery on both knees, stay healthy? If he does, Baltimore has a two-way difference maker.

How it'll go down: The health of Wieters and Machado is vital. The Orioles again have a lot of major league arms and, in manager Buck Showalter, they have a master at manipulating a staff to keep it healthy and use individuals to their best strengths.

2. Red Sox

Key player: Clay Buchholz. Is he the guy who was 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA before a shoulder injury derailed him in 2013 or the guy who sank to 8-11 with a 5.34 ERA last year? A starter or two from among Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson, Joe Kelly and Wade Miley needs to emerge as anchors.

Player who'll need to step up: Hanley Ramirez. Boston gave him a four-year, $88 million pact and switched him from short to left, imagining his offense being helped by playing at Fenway. The lineup could be dynamic if the moody Ramirez is productive.

Name you'll get to know: Blake Swihart. The Red Sox have resisted including him as the key element in a trade for Cole Hamels. He might take over as the main catcher by midseason — especially now that fellow catcher prospect Christian Vazquez is headed for Tommy John surgery.

Biggest question mark: Can Xander Bogaerts handle shortstop? This groundball-heavy staff is going to need Bogaerts to field the position. There still is a star in there. Will it come out?

How it'll go down: There are enough questions up and down the pitching staff to undermine the season. But Mookie Betts is poised to be a star, the offense is strong and the farm system deep enough to help solve problems in season.

3. Yankees

Key player: Michael Pineda. He just might be the best starter in the AL East. But the only way to earn that distinction is to make 30 starts. His health has been a huge issue. Is this the year he puts it all together?

Player who'll need to step up: Carlos Beltran. The Yankees have to score more than the past two years. That puts a burden on Beltran, Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann to drive in at least 275 runs — they combined for 186 last year.

Rob RefsnyderPhoto: Charles Wenzelberg

Name you'll get to know: Rob Refsnyder. Stephen Drew at second and Beltran in right are fragile. Refsnyder's bat appears near ready to step in if the Yankees have an injury.

Biggest question mark: Is every start just a regular start for Masahiro Tanaka or his last one for a while? It is hard to forget he missed two months last year with a small elbow ligament tear. There are scenarios in which the Yanks have the best 1-2 rotation punch (Pineda/Tanaka) in the AL East and scenarios in which they succumb to injuries, which would devastate the Yanks.

How it'll go down: There is just too much fragility atop the rotation and in the middle of the lineup. If they get surprisingly good health, they will be a force to the end, especially because their bullpen and defense should be strong. On a larger issue, the Yanks sure could use Didi Gregorius to secure shortstop, Nate Eovaldi to be strong in the rotation and youngsters like Aaron Judge, Greg Bird and Luis Severino to keep climbing toward the majors.

4. Blue Jays

Key player: Aaron Sanchez. Toronto's rotation comes in two categories: the old with Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey, and the young with Sanchez, Drew Hutchison and Daniel Norris. With Marcus Stroman out for the season after such a strong rookie debut in 2014, the pressure moves to the other youngsters such as Sanchez to carry weight.

Player who'll need to step up: Jose Reyes. The middle of the Toronto lineup with Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Donaldson should be fierce. Reyes needs to stay healthy and get on base in front of them plus be better on defense than he was last season.

Name you'll get to know: Miguel Castro. The 20-year-old righty relief flame-thrower was one of the talks of spring training. He could take on a prominent bullpen role relatively quickly.

Biggest question mark: Do the additions of Donaldson and Russell Martin bring cohesion to a team that has been seen as a group of talented, but disjointed parts the past few years?

How it'll go down: General manager Alex Anthopoulos and manager John Gibbons begin on the hot seat. The Stroman injury is huge because there was so much uncertainty with the rotation. The Jays should hit lots of homers and score a bunch of runs. Will they stop the other team from scoring?

5. Rays

Key player: Asdrubal Cabrera. The Indians' defense improved significantly after Cabrera was traded last year and Jose Ramirez replaced him at shortstop. Now, Tampa is going to try to play him at short. Can Cabrera still handle the position?

Player who'll need to step up: Chris Archer. Can he graduate from above-average starter to ace? David Price is gone. Alex Cobb and Drew Smyly will begin the season on the DL (though neither is expected to be out long). Matt Moore is still a few months away from returning from Tommy John surgery. The Rays will again look to their rotation to compensate for shortcomings elsewhere, so Archer is vital.

Steven SouzaPhoto: Getty Images

Name you'll get to know: Steven Souza. For now, he is most famous for the diving catch that preserved Jordan Zimmermann's no-hitter last season. But he also was the International League MVP (.350 batting average/1.022 OPS) and with Wil Myers traded, Souza will need to add some heft and protection behind Evan Longoria.

Biggest question mark: Where do they get power? Even if Longoria rebounds from a down year and Souza offers some might, how else does Tampa generate homers, in general, and runs, in specific?

How it'll go down: Despite minuscule payrolls, the Rays have consistently overcome. And with good health, they have the rotation to do so again. But it is hard to ignore that Price is a Tiger, Joe Maddon is a Cub and Andrew Friedman is a Dodger. The margin for error is small and it looks as if Tampa will be challenged to score consistently.

AL Central

1. Indians

Key player: Carlos Carrasco. He returned to the rotation last Aug. 10 and in his final 10 starts was 5-3 with a 1.30 ERA and a .179 batting average against. If he's for real, it means Cleveland gets another ace-like performer to join AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber.

Player who'll need to step up: Jason Kipnis. He fell from a 17-homer, 30-steal, .818-OPS MVP candidate in 2013 to 6/22/.640. A repeat of 2013 combined with health for offseason acquisition Brandon Moss (who came from Oakland and needed hip surgery) would make the offense a force, especially against righties (Cleveland can start eight lefties or switch hitters).

Name you'll get to know: Francisco Lindor. The Indians' terrible defense improved greatly when Jose Ramirez was inserted for Asdrubal Cabrera. But Ramirez is a placeholder until Lindor, viewed as one of the sport's top prospects, is ready. At that point, Ramirez could move to second and Kipnis to the outfield (where he played in college).

Biggest question mark: Cleveland had the majors' third-best ERA (3.03) in the second half last season. Kluber emerged as a star, but he represented a group that pitched well but has a limited track record. Can this group carry success from late last year to this season?

How it'll go down: Just about every important member of this team is in his prime years, yet has served his major league apprenticeship. They have a core ready to win now.

2. White Sox

Key player: David Robertson. No club arguably needed a consistently excellent, strikeout-centric closer to steady the whole pen more than the White Sox, whose relievers combined to be in the bottom four in ERA, save percentage and strikeouts per nine innings.

Avisail GarciaPhoto: AP

Player who'll need to step up: Avisail Garcia. The additions of Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche make Chicago's lineup longer. But if Garcia, who missed most of last season with a torn labrum, honors his talents, the White Sox could be among the leaders in runs.

Name you'll get to know: Carlos Rodon. The lefty was the third pick in last June's draft and struck out 19 in 12 ¹/₃ spring innings. He is not far away from joining Chris Sale and Carlos Quintana to give the White Sox three high-end southpaw starters.

Biggest question mark: The White Sox's offseason buildup — Robertson, Cabrera, LaRoche, Jeff Samardzija and Zach Duke — combined with players such as Sale, Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton, gives the White Sox an impressive collection of frontline players. But there is not a lot of depth here, so they cannot absorb many injuries.

How it'll go down: Abreu and Sale are special talents and now they have the help around them to carry the White Sox into contention.

3. Tigers

Key player: Justin Verlander. There are CC Sabathia similarities here — a Cy Young-winning horse with big innings in both the regular and postseason who might have lost his gas. Can he stay healthy? Can he recreate himself at a different speed?

Player who'll need to step up: Joe Nathan. He is 40. He just had his worst season. The Tigers' bullpen had undermined the club in recent years. So if Nathan falls apart again, does he get pulled quickly from the closer role with either Joakim Soria or Bruce Rondon taking over?

Name you'll get to know: Anthony Gose. Detroit is the third organization intoxicated enough by his speed and defensive skills in center to see if his bat will ever catch up. The Tigers need a leadoff hitter and can use the injection of speed considering the lumbering state of the middle of its lineup. Can Gose get on base enough?

Justin VerlanderPhoto: AP

Biggest question mark: They are asking a lot out of either older and/or injury-touched players such as Verlander, Nathan, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Anibal Sanchez.

How it'll go down: On paper, they could have a fierce rotation 1-2-3 in David Price, Verlander and Sanchez (plus Shane Greene, if his 2014 Yankee debut was not aberrational) and dynamic mid-lineup with Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Yoenis Cespedes and J.D. Martinez. But there is a lot of fragility there.

4. Royals

Key player: Yordano Ventura. With James Shields gone, the fire-balling Ventura and Danny Duffy will be asked to climb in the rotation and take on greater responsibility.

Player who'll need to step up: Eric Hosmer. Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas all performed like stars in the postseason. Now, can they do that for six months?

Name you'll get to know: Brandon Finnegan. He went from the June draft to a key player on an AL champion last year. After a poor spring training, however, he will begin in the minors being stretched out to start, but ready should Kansas City need him in the pen or the rotation.

Biggest question mark: They spread what money they had to address shortcomings on rebound candidates and/or players attempting to return from injury such as Kendrys Morales, Alex Rios, Luke Hochevar and Kris Medlen plus the up-and-down Edinson Volquez.

How it'll go down: The dynamic endgame pen of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland remains intact and so does the team defense. That combination pushed Kansas City to its first playoff berth in 29 years. But is it enough to persevere in arguably the majors' toughest division?

5. Twins

Key player: Ervin Santana. The Twins gave a four-year, $55 million contract to Santana, hoping the righty joins Phil Hughes, who was terrific last year, and Ricky Nolasco, who was dreadful, to form greater competence atop the rotation than Minnesota has had in a while.

Player who'll need to step up: Joe Mauer. He was an MVP-level catcher when the Twins gave him an eight-year, $180 million contract. At that midway point of that pact, he is a singles-hitting first baseman. Minnesota cannot afford to pay this much for so little.

Name you'll get to know: Byron Buxton. He is in the conversation with Cubs meteorite Kris Bryant for best prospect in the game. Buxton and Miguel Sano both had their 2014s derailed by injury. Still, they might both get to Minnesota this year with the belief of changing the arc of the franchise.

Biggest question mark: Minnesota was third in the majors in runs scored in the second half. To overcome their weak pitching, the Twins will have to score big again, so are players such as Brian Dozier, Kennys Vargas, Danny Santana and Oswaldo Arcia for real?

How it'll go down: They have the fifth-most talent in the AL Central, but will not be a pushover because of the veterans atop the rotation and the offensive firepower. Still, the most vital element for the Twins is their well-regarded farm system continuing to blossom, particularly Buxton and Sano.

AL West

1. Mariners

Key player: Nelson Cruz. Seattle invested $57 million over four years that Cruz's righty bat can handle spacious Safeco Field and protect Robinson Cano in the lineup.

Player who'll need to step up: Austin Jackson. He did not have the late-season impact Seattle envisioned after being obtained in July. The center fielder's on-base percentage has shriveled from .377 in 2012 to .337 in 2013 to .308 last year. He will be asked to lead off in what Seattle thinks is a better overall lineup. Will he get on base enough?

Name you'll get to know: Taijuan Walker. The great Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma have given Seattle a strong 1-2 atop the rotation, but young James Paxton and Walker have the ability to pitch like high-end starters and make any series against the Mariners a calamity for opposing hitters.

Biggest question mark: Can Brad Miller handle shortstop? He was in competition with Chris Taylor for the position in spring training before Taylor fractured his wrist. Miller is sketchy on defense and his offense has yet to reach expectations.

How it'll go down: Not long ago the Mariners had no righty diversity in the lineup, but the addition of Cruz, emergence of Mike Zunino, acquisition of Jackson and implementation of Justin Ruggiano and Rickie Weeks in platoons should solve this. Seattle is suddenly deep, pitching-heavy and poised to make the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

2. Angels

Key player: Garrett Richards. He was in Cy Young contention before tearing up his knee covering first last Aug. 20. He should be healthy enough to rejoin the rotation early in the season. If he is the same guy he was for 4 ¹/₂ months last year, the Angels have an ace who lessens the burden on the rest of the rotation.

Player who'll need to step up: Johnny Giavotella. The Angels have not had to think about second base for a long time because of the presence of Howie Kendrick. Giavotella, who could not hold a job in Kansas City, will get the first try at replacing Kendrick.

Andrew HeaneyPhoto: AP

Name you'll get to know: Andrew Heaney. This is where Kendrick went, used in a three-team deal to land Heaney from the Marlins. With Tyler Skaggs (Tommy John surgery) lost for the year and Richards working his way back from surgery, the Angels wanted to add a young arm for depth. Heaney is a polarizing prospect with scouts split on whether he is a high-end starter or just another guy.

Biggest question mark: Wither Josh Hamilton. He was going to miss the start of the season after needing shoulder surgery and now he is potentially facing a lengthy suspension for again violating the substance-abuse policy. He is a faded, troubled player, so what happens if he does come back in 2015? Is he help or disruption?

How it'll go down: Mike Trout is the majors' best player and Albert Pujols seemed to have found the fountain of youth in spring, giving the Angels two dynamic presences in the daily lineup. They could be challenged by depth issues, particularly because their farm system is thin.

3. Athletics

Key player: Billy Butler. He was signed for three years at $30 million to hit cleanup. Ike Davis was grabbed to bat fifth. The duo combined to hit 61 homers in 2012 and have been in steady decline since, teaming for 19 homers last season. What's left?

Player who'll need to step up: Brett Lawrie. He was part of the haul from Toronto for Josh Donaldson and will be the replacement at third base. He has skills, but one of them is not the ability to stay healthy. Will he finally?

Name you'll get to know: Marcus Semien. A key piece in the return from the White Sox for Jeff Samardzija, Semien will get a chance to be a regular shortstop. There is a lot more belief in his bat than glove at present.

Biggest question mark: Even when Josh Reddick returns from the DL, the A's are going to have difficulty mustering power with Donaldson, Brandon Moss and Yoenis Cespedes no longer with the team.

How it'll go down: They have blown up rosters before and produced surprisingly good seasons. The A's try that again. They might be deep enough in pitching — especially if Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin can rejoin the rotation around June after Tommy John surgery — to contend.

4. Astros

Key player: George Springer. He had a nice cameo (20 homers in 78 games) before being lost to a quad injury. Springer is the first major prospect to break through in this Houston rebuild and, thus, carries a lot of weight to become a star.

Player who'll need to step up: Jed Lowrie. Houston has illusions — or delusions — of at least topping .500 this year. To do so, Lowrie needs to stay healthy and be able to handle shortstop, and he has had trouble in both areas during this career.

Name you'll get to know: Carlos Correa. Lowrie will not be playing shortstop long into the future. The first pick of the 2012 draft, Correa had his progress slowed by fracturing his fibula last season. But even with that and his tender age (20), Correa still could put himself in line for a September call up this year, so advanced are his skills.

Biggest question mark: Will a ton of strikeouts negate — at least to some degree — the club's big power? Players such as Springer, Chris Carter, Colby Rasmus, Evan Gattis and Jason Castro could amass substantial whiff totals.

How it'll go down: Jose Altuve is a leadoff star and the bullpen should be better with the adds of Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek. But more of the minor league talent needs to arrive before the Astros truly turn the corner.

5. Rangers

Key player: Prince Fielder. Even if 2015 turns into a lost year, the Rangers have six more years of commitment at huge dollars to Fielder (neck) and Shin-Soo Choo (ankle) who both struggled with health and production in 2014. They need those players on the field and succeeding for now and the future.

Player who'll need to step up: Derek Holland. With Yu Darvish lost for the season (Tommy John surgery). Martin Perez not due back for a few months (Tommy John surgery) and Matt Harrison an unknown after multiple back surgeries, Holland and Yovani Gallardo will be asked to prop up this otherwise dubious rotation.

Name you'll get to know: Joey Gallo. After 43 homers in the minors last year and a dominant spring, Cubs third-base prospect Kris Bryant has become the talk of the game. Rightfully. But Gallo hit 42 homers in the minors (from the left side). He is a third baseman, too, but might have to move to the outfield with Adrian Beltre present for Texas. It is not out of the question he can arrive this season.

Biggest question mark: The rotation begins with Colby Lewis, Ross Detwiler and Nick Martinez filling three spots. That is arguably the worst 3-5 in the AL.

How it'll go down: The Rangers just might have missed their window (2010-13) to win it all. They have gotten too old, too expensive and/or too fragile in too many places. They have a strong farm system, so perhaps they can rebound quickly. But it will be difficult for that to be in 2015.

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