Purists Beware: In the AL, Money Talks and DHs Walk

Despite my lifelong hatred of the American League and its mission to ruin baseball via the designated hitter, Alex Rodriguez and the city of Anaheim, I have to admit that sometimes, it’s not so bad. Over the past couple of years, it has produced a quality brand of ball that even we National League-purists can stomach. Teams like the Tampa Bay Rays, the Minnesota Twins and the Texas Rangers are succeeding by relying on young, homegrown talent that cut the big boys in New York and Boston down to size.

So it is with slightly less disdain than normal that I give my predictions for the 2010 American League baseball season.

1) American League West

For the first time in recent memory, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (a constant flame to my AL-fueled anger) will not start the season as division favorites. Losing ace pitcher John Lackey to the Red Sox leaves the Halos’ rotation in the hands of the goldie-locked Jered Weaver and Scott Kazmir, who has yet to live up to his Tampa Bay glory days after being traded to Los Angeles last season. The addition of World Series MVP Hideki Matsui at designated hitter to complement Kendry Morales and Torii Hunter will keep their offensive attack scary as ever, but in the AL’s most exciting division, they just might not be enough.

The Angels should be especially wary, considering the Seattle Mariners are baseball’s most improved team after an offseason that saw them add ex-Phillies ace Cliff Lee and ex-Angels leadoff man Chone Figgins to their ranks. With Lee and King Felix Hernandez at the top of the rotation, the Mariners will have the best one-two punch in the league and will thrive off the spacious, pitching-friendly outfield of Safeco Field. If manager Don Wakamatsu and the ageless Ken Griffey Jr. can help newly acquired outfielder Milton Bradley find inner peace, the 2010 Mariners might bring Seattle its first-ever AL pennant.

Similarly, watching this year’s Texas Rangers perform will surely provide an addictive, intoxicating rush. Now that I’ve gotten the obligatory joke about Rangers manager Ron Washington’s positive cocaine test out of the way, I’ll tell you why this team could make its first playoff appearance since 1999 — even with a druggie leader. Ian Kinsler might be the best second baseman not named Chase, and right fielder Nelson Cruz is still one of baseball’s best-kept secrets. If starting pitcher Rich Harden pulls out even half his uninjured potential, the Rangers could surprise a lot of people.

My Predictions

Division champ: Seattle Mariners

In the hunt: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Fantasy sleeper: Scott Feldman, Texas Rangers Starting Pitcher

Story to watch: If Ron Washington will continue to conjure Rick James.

2) American League Central

No AL Central team has made it to the World Series since the White Sox won it all in 2005, and I don’t think that’s about to change this season. Each of the five teams has something great going for it, but not one has enough to push it over the top.

The Twins signed local hero and catcher Joe Mauer to a staggering eight-year, $184-million contract extension, but are hurt by the loss of All-Star closer Joe Nathan to season-ending Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow.

The White Sox have the insane brilliance of manager Ozzie Guillen, but cannot win by relying on an outfield of MLB rejects like Alex Rios, Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones.

The Tigers could make a run at the division now that Johnny Damon’s re-grown beard is roaming the field, but ace pitcher Justin Verlander’s erratic performance the past few seasons is a big problem.

The Cleveland Indians have heartthrob Grady Sizemore roaming center field and the young power of firstbaseman Matt LaPorta, but with Jake Westbrook as their Opening Day starting pitcher, baseball in October remains a dream for the Tribe.

And except for reigning Cy Young winner Zach Greinke, the Kansas City Royals have little to offer baseball fans — or their AL competition.

My Predictions

Division champ: Minnesota Twins

In the hunt: Detroit Tigers

Fantasy sleeper: Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers starting pitcher

Story to follow: Ozzie Guillen’s Twitter account

3) American League East

Following their unparalleled 27th World Series championship, the New York Yankees somehow managed to shed payroll while improving their team. Gone are Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui (and their bulging contracts), and here to stay are outfielders Curtis Granderson and Randy Winn, infielder/DH Nick Johnson and starting pitcher Javier Vazquez.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman should be credited for overseeing an offseason that has turned the defending champs into a more streamlined club — one that now has more bench depth and cost efficiency. No matter how good A-Rod might be, I will always hate baseball’s richest and cockiest player. Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia, on the other hand, seem like good guys that play hard and stay humble, so I guess not all members of the Evil Empire have fully crossed over to the dark side.

Last season’s AL Wild Card winners, the Boston Red Sox, roll in from spring training after landing the offseason’s top pitching free agent, John Lackey. Boston will hope this makes up for losing their the top offensive free agent of 2009 in left fielder Jason Bay. A pitching lineup of Lackey, Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Dice-K is dangerous any day of the week, and with Jonathan Papelbon closing out games, the boys from Beantown are looking solid.

Only a few years removed from the dredges of professional baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays have quickly built themselves into a competitive organization. Their early season success will determine whether or not their two star players — outfielder B.J. Upton and first baseman Carlos Pena — will be signed to contract extensions or traded off at July’s trading deadline.

Look for young pitching phenom David Price to have a breakout season and cement himself as one of the premier left-handed pitchers in baseball.

My predictions

Division champ: New York Yankees

In the hunt: Boston Red Sox

Fantasy sleeper: Brian Matusz, Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher (and University of San Diego alum)

Story to follow: How many games will Kate Hudson show up to at Yankee Stadium to root for her squeeze, Alex Rodriguez?

Thus concludes this year’s edition of my MLB preseason predictions. So tune in this Sunday for Opening Day 2010, pour yourself a frosty beverage and practice your bleacher-bum taunts, because we have 162 glorious games ahead of us.

Oh, and just in case you weren’t quite sure yet, I think Alex Rodriguez is a douche.

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