• Exclusives

    American League preview

    In the Major Leagues of baseball, there is one league that follows the rules by which baseball was meant to be played. This is called the National League. As followers of an NL club, Braves fans have the privilege of watching real baseball almost daily.  

    However, there is another league in MLB, which plays something closely resembling real baseball. Since the Braves will play a handful of games against “Junior Circuit” ball clubs and hope to play a 7-game series against one of them in October, we thought we’d take a look at how the American League shapes up in 2013.

    First, a brief lesson in modern AL history: In the early 1970’s, Al Gore invented computers and the internet, and someone on a message board decided that the American League should let the pitcher rest on the bench between innings. A designated hitter would be assigned to bat for the pitcher, with the intention of increasing offense. The results of this decision have all been wonderful. An increase in steroid use, four and a half hour long regular season games and the explosion of the obesity epidemic in America and the bursting of the housing bubble can all be traced directly to the American League and their use of the designated hitter.

    As rational, literate, educated National League fans, we are unfortunately subjected to another abomination on our sport known as interleague play. Since 1997, we have been forced to play in the same sandbox as those Junior Circuiters. This past winter, the American League did the unthinkable, and stole a National League team. Sure, the team they stole was the hapless Houston Astros, but nevertheless, they are thieves. As a result of this, there are now 15 teams in each league, meaning that every single night there will be an interleague game. As much as we dislike the American League and their boorish behaviour and style of play, it is our duty as National Leaguers to know a little bit about them. What follows is everything that you need to know about the American League in 2013.

    AL East

    The offseason buzz in the AL East centred around the Blue Jays of Toronto swooping down and plucking everything worth plucking from the Miami Marlins. The only reason they didn’t snap up Giancarlo Stanton is that they couldn’t lift him in their feeble Blue Jay talons. Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle join free agent pickup R.A. Dickey and holdovers Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow to form a nasty rotation. Adding bum turned juicer-bum, Melky Cabrera, and Jose Reyes to home run machines Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarcion make the Jays the favourite of many. (Because the Jays are Canadian, I’m free to use Canadian spelling when discussing them.) The Braves play the Jays four times this season. A ridiculous four game set with two in Toronto followed by two in Atlanta is a result of the designated hitter. Past Braves you’ll know include backup backstop Hank White and, of course, Melky Cabrera, who might be invited to participate in the Home Depot Tool Race at Turner Field. (Do you know anyone in the game who is more of a tool?)

    The Rays of Tampa Bay are always in the mix. They dealt from a position of strength by dealing James Shields and Wade Davis to Kansas City, getting one of the top prospects in baseball in return. Whether Wil Myers starts the season in Tampa or sits on the farm to manage his service time remains to be seen. In a division where the race will be tight, he could be the difference between a division crown, a berth in the play-in game or an early start to winter. The Rays are fun to watch and their defense benefits from some of the extreme shifting employed by Joe Maddon. This team is flush with young talent and this could be the year that Desmond Jennings breaks out. Or stays healthy. One of the two. Ex-Braves on the Rays are Kelly Johnson, Kyle Farnsworth and everyone’s favourite whistler, Yunel Escobar.

    The Red Sox were terrible last year. A combination of injuries, underperformance, and the clown show that was Bobby Valentine’s managing made it impossible for the Red Sox to succeed. John Farrell was pilfered from the Blue Jays in one of those famous player-for-manager trades. Only time will tell if Mike Aviles is worth the new manager*, but Farrell is a hard-nosed pitching coach who had success with the staff in 2011, when they weren’t ordering Popeye’s and Bud Light for the locker room of course. There has been a pile of turnover as six of the projected starting nine won’t have had significant playing time with the BoSox last year. Including the mid-season trade with the Dodgers, they purged Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Josh Beckett. Ex-Braves you’ll remember include both catchers, David Ross and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. *Mike Aviles is on Cleveland now? How did this happen? Are there two of them?

    The rest of the division isn’t as exciting. How’s this for the projected opening day lineup for the mighty Yankees of New York? Keep in mind Derek Jeter may be starting the year on the DL as he recovers from the broken ankle he got when the dirt at shortstop rose up and knocked him down. 9 Suzuki 6 Nunez 4 Cano 5 Youkilis DH Hafner 3 Rivera 7 Boesch 8 Gardner 2 Stewart. If Jeter ends up on the DL to kick off the campaign, the Yankees will have $70.5 million in salary in the trainer’s room. You could buy a lot of pretty much anything for that kind of money. You’ll watch the Yankees because they’re the Yankees and it’s Mariano Rivera’s last year. Looks like his final pitch will likely be thrown in the regular season. Unless you count the disabled Mark Teixeira, the only ex-Brave you’ll see if Boone Logan. Remember those 17 2/3 innings he pitched in Atlanta in 2009? Me neither

    Remember last year when the Orioles won all those one run games and everyone thought they were good? Their pitching is sub-par, their bullpen isn’t special and there is no one outside of Adam Jones and Matt Wieters who put fear into opposing pitchers. If Nick Markakis can stay healthy, Brian Roberts can show any of his former skills, Jair Jurrjens magically starts striking people out, Manny Machado can build on his late-season call up, Nate McLouth, Jim Johnson, Chris Tillman and Chris Davis re-capture lightning in a bottle, maybe this team can finish at .500 this year. Look at all the ex-Braves! McLouth(who was the recipient of the greatest walk-off celebration in Braves history. The empty dugout.), Jurrjens, Betemit and, that’s it? Really? I thought there were more.

    AL Central

    This is maybe the weakest division in baseball. The Tigers are like the smartest Phillies fan. Nothing to be impressed about. Except maybe this Tiger team is good and we shouldn’t scoff at them just because their division is full of junk. The reigning AL champs look strong again this year with Prince Fielder, Justin Verlander and triple crown winner Miguel Cabrera leading the charge. The biggest additions would be the return of Victor Martinez and the signing of a declining Torii Hunter. They have a huge, hard-throwing rookie closer(sound familiar) in Bruce Rondon. Watch this kid light up radar guns. Al Alburquerque has a great name and even better stuff. They will win this division in a landslide. Omar Infante and Brayan Pena are the only ex-Braves. Unless you include bench coach Rafael Belliard. I would. Oh, and Octavio Dotel. He’s played for 13 teams and chances are that he played for the Braves. You’ll see them all on TV the last weekend in April, when the 2013 World Champion Atlanta Braves travel to Detroit.

    Is it just me, or are the White Sox the blandest team in baseball? From their non-descript uniforms to their charmless ballpark, they are boring. Sure Paul Konerko is great, and even just watching him take pitches is an exhibition of hitting. Adam Dunn can hit the ball very far and Chris Sale is pretty good, but just read those names. Even the names are boring. Maybe that’s what Robin Ventura wants. Tyler Flowers and DeWayne Wise had their names stitched on Braves jerseys in spring training. The Braves visit the Pale Hose in July for three games.

    Does everyone else still feel like they should dislike Cleveland? 1995 is still fresh in my mind and I never got over my feeling toward them. Terry Francona is their new manager, taking one of the more entertaining and insightful analysts out of the booth. They added Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds and what?! Jason Giambi? Wasn’t he in the running for the Rockies managerial post? Watch the Indians so you can watch Giambi. Another interesting story in Ohio is the comeback of Scott Kazmir. Reports from Arizona have been glowing. Expect him to contribute or maybe his arm just explodes. He was electric when he was on, so if he can recover any of that past magic his numbers shouldn’t be awful. Ex-Braves include Michael Bourn, and only Michael Bourn. Bring your hate hats when the Tribe come to town in the sweltering late August heat.

    Past Atlanta executive Dayton Moore has been derided for “The Process”, which is the building project the Royals have been undergoing since the beginning of time. The idea is to build through the farm, signing players while they’re young and building a strong core. Except when none of the young pitching comes through! Has he never heard TINSTAAPP? There is no such thing as a pitching prospect. Mike Montgomery, Jake Odorizzi, Danny Duffy and John Lamb are all names that have been high on prospect lists for years. Injuries and poor performance have derailed many of them. Montgomery and Odorizzi were part of the package sent to Tampa to put Wade Davis and James Shields into their awful rotation. Not one of their five starters this year are home-grown. The offense is another matter. Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas were all drafted and developed by the Royals. They don’t look terrible! Jeff Francouer, Bruce Chen and wee Timmy Collins were all Atlanta property at one time. Watch the Royals when they come to the Ted on April 16 and 17. Seriously, Tim Collins is like 5’5”. The Braves return the visit in late June.

    The Twins have a beautiful new ballpark. The city is great to get around in. You fly in and take the train from the airport to the huge mall, to the downtown core and to the park. I went there in 2010 to watch the Braves. They won two of three and Bobby Cox won the second game(or maybe the first) with a well-timed suicide squeeze. I met Ryan Klesko in the Edmonton airport and he couldn’t have been nicer. This year’s Twins? Who cares? Joe Mauer and the shell of Justin Morneau is all that they have. There number one starter is Vance Worley. Vance Worley!!  At least they have Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton to dream on for 2015. No ex-Braves, and thank God they bring their travelling “free space on the bingo card” act to Atlanta for three days in June.

    AL West

    Being in the west, I get to stay up and watch the late games every night. I love watching the AL West. A big reason is the California Angels. The first game I ever went to was between the Angels and Red Sox. Oil Can Boyd and Mike Witt faced off. These Angels are pretty good, and I think they’ll finish atop the west in 2013. Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton form an explosive core for the Angels, and their pitching staff is led by stud Jared Weaver. The bullpen is solid. Ernesto Frieri is an underrated closer, and will be in that role until Ryan Madson gets well, and maybe beyond. Speaking of healthy, ex-Brave BMFTommy Hanson is struggling with triceps tightness, never a good sign in his bid to lock down the fifth starter spot for the Halos.

    The Texas Rangers are very good at playing baseball. They lost Josh Hamilton, and picked up A.J. Pierzynski and Lance Berkman. They have top prospect Jurickson Profar waiting in the wings to take over at second or short, but Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler are occupying those spots for now. Kinsler may be on the move at some point, either to the outfield or to another city, allowing the Rangers to form a ridiculously dynamic middle infield. The rotation is led by Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison and the terribly unfunny and brutally mustached Derek Holland. Remember when the Braves traded their farm system to the Rangers for Mark Teixeira? Andrus and Harrison remain from that trade. Neftali Feliz will miss most of the season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Watch Joakim Soria as he returns mid-season from his own TJ procedure. Oh, and Derek Lowe has a minor league deal with them. The Braves aren’t paying him to not play for them this year too, are they?

    Oakland shocked everyone by winning the west last year. How in the world? Well, Josh Reddick hit 32 unexpected home runs, and Yoenis Cespedes showed off his core strength (seriously, watch the video his agent put out when he was a free agent http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ej4AP-veuF8). They play in an awful old cement ballpark and caught all of the lightning in a bottle last year. Everything fell their way in 2012. Their bullpen was lights out and they got good performances from their starting five. This should continue this year, but it won’t be enough to compete with the big two.

    The only reason the Mariners aren’t going to finish in last this year is that they brought the Astros over from Houston. Felix Hernandez is a perennial Cy Young candidate who just signed a monster extension. He loves Seattle and Seattle loves him. Tune in to a game when he starts at Safeco to see an entire section clad in yellow t-shirts as the King’s Court. It’s a sight to see. Michael Morse, Jason Bay, Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibanez were all brought over this offseason. Uh, aren’t they all kind of the same, offering no defensive value and you only get to have one DH? Justin Smoak had a great finish to the season, and the Mariners hope that moving in the fences will allow their offense to be a little more prolific than it has in recent years. Jesus Montero can hit the snot out of the ball, but when your number two starter is Joe Saunders, it’s going to be a long season.

    The Houston Astros are under a new regime. Jeff Luhnow is one of the brightest young minds in baseball, and he’s been tasked with making the Astros competitive. They held on to faces of the franchise like Bagwell, Biggio and Berkman for far too long, failing to replenish the farm system with youth in exchange for the shells of their stars. Sure it was neat to see Biggio collect his 3,000th hit in a rainbow uniform, but was it really worth it? The Astros are throwing everything into scouting and development and aren’t even pretending to contend this year. Is it worth it to throw a few million dollars at some middle-of-the-road free agents to go from 48 wins to 52? Jose Altuve is really short and the Astros representative in the All-Star game last year. Watch him. Chris Carter is someone to watch. He can mash and could hit 30 homers with playing time and the Crawford Boxes in left.

    Your division winners will be the Angels, Tigers and Blue Jays, with the Rangers beating the Rays in the play-in game. Blue Jays over the Angels and the Tigers over the Rangers to give us an old AL  East ALCS. The Tigers are going to repeat? Really? That can’t be right, can it? It’s probably not. Once you get to the tournament, anything can happen. The Tigers have the aces, bullpen and big bats needed to win in October.

    Darren Schienbein is a freelance baseball analyst and BravesWire contributor. Follow Darren on Twitter: @shinesie