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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...MLB "FUTURES" TO WATCH (AL)
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Major League Baseball is back! The regular season got a bit of a head start with this week's opening two-game series in Tokyo between the A's and Mariners, with the rest of the action commencing next Wednesday.

As we like to do at this time each spring, we're offering our previews of both the American and National Leagues, focusing upon the "futures" (over/under wins) recommendations. And remember that beginning next week, TGS will provide featured MLB releases (Monday thru Saturday at 10:15 AM PDT) on Top Choice and Top Choice Plus (+), the latter featuring the TC in addition to two other featured recommendations, available online at www.goldsheet.com.

First up is our look at the AL; our next issue will preview the NL. Season win "totals" are in ( ). Play ball!

AL EAST: BEST BET...The routinely-overpriced New York Yankees (93 ½) have rarely been on our best bet list lately. Indeed, we're usually looking "under" at this time of the year with the Bronx Bombers. But not this season, as the win number in the low 90s is lower than we have come to expect from the Yanks, and we don't see any reason why they can't do at least as well as last year when logging 97 wins. The staff has been strengthened with the additions of Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda, who bring two completely different repertoires to the rotation. Now Andy Pettitte has decided to return to the fold. And when is the last time a lineup featuring A-Rod, Mark Teixeira, Robby Cano, and Curtis Granderson didn't score a lot of runs? At this price, it's an "over" for us in the Bronx.

OTHERS TO WATCH...They're not making the Baltimore Orioles (69 ½) clear a high hurdle, but we're still reluctant to get too excited. Not even skipper Buck Showalter knows what to expect from a pitching staff that will likely have a completely different rotation than the one that began 2011; what happened to all of those promising young Orioles' arms, anyway? No signs of significant upgrades in the everyday lineup that only added a few journeymen (Endy Chavez, Wilson Betemit, Ronny Paulino) in the offseason. Keeping 2B Brian Roberts healthy hasn't always been easy (and he was already hurting this month in Sarasota), and 3B Mark Reynolds remains a wind machine at the plate. Beyond CF Adam Jones and promising C Matt Wieters, there's not a lot else to like about this lineup. By midseason, Showalter might be wondering why he left ESPN for this gig two years ago. It's an "under" for us at Camden Yards.

The oddsmakers and wagering public are slow to buy into the Tampa Bay Rays (86 ½) despite their recent successes. Sure, the Rays have lost a lot of talent via free agency in recent years, but they've still made the playoffs three of the past four seasons. Joe Maddon's starting rotation, led by James Shields and David Price, might be the deepest in the league, and the Rays continue to find pieces from their farm system to fill the gaps in the everyday lineup. The Rays needed a bit of help in the power department, but it's hoped the return of 1B Carlos Pena and the addition of OF/1B/DH Luke Scott will help, as will the availability of a healthy Evan Longoria from the beginning of the campaign. We would have tried to hang on to Johnny Damon, however. Still, the staff is so strong that we remain bullish on the Rays. "Over" at The Trop.

Count us among those who don't know what to expect from new manager Bobby Valentine or anything else from a re-tooled Boston Red Sox (90 ½) side. That was no ordinary collapse down the stretch in Beantown last September, prompting a complete housecleaning in the front office and dugout. GM Theo Epstein moved to the Cubs, while manager Terry Francona was out immediately after the September collapse. We also remain a bit skeptical about a pitching staff that faltered badly in September and saw fit to abandon one of the culprits, long-time closer Jonathan Papelbon (now with the Phils). As for the intense Valentine, it's a 180-degree switch from the laid-back Francona, and could implode the clubhouse...or work like a charm. We'll see, but we opt for the "under" at Fenway Park.

We noted with great interest how the Toronto Blue Jays (82 ½) were trying to add some big-time pieces to the mix in the offseason, involved heavily in the Prince Fielder chase. That didn't work out, and the Jays came up empty in most of their other pursuits as well, although we think Ben Francisco could be a stealth addition in the outfield. The Jays got to .500 last season and believe they have a new lease on life with the extra wild card slot, and the fact they were players in the Fielder derby suggests they will be actively looking to strengthen the roster during the season, too. With a couple of rising stars in 3B Brett Lowrie and 1B Adam Lind, and a potential 45-50 homer power source in OF Jose Bautista, Toronto will score enough runs. And if John Farrell's rotation solidifies beyond starters Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow, the Blue Jays will be in the mix, perhaps for their first postseason berth since the Joe Carter World Series year of 1993. We say "over" at Rogers Centre.

AL CENTRAL: BEST BET...No one was expecting the Minnesota Twins (72 ½) to fall off the map the way they did a year ago in their 63-99 disaster. It was Murphy's Law at Target Field, as anything that could have gone wrong did go wrong for a side that used the DL an astounding 27 times. A quick turnaround to playoff form is unlikely, because GM Terry Ryan, back in the saddle after the failure of protégé Bill Smith, discarded once-valued pieces such as RP Joe Nathan, OF Michael Cuddyer, and OF Jason Kubel, replacing them with low-cost parts such as IF Jamey Carroll, C/1B/DH Ryan Doumit, and OF Josh Willingham. But a healthy Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, and Denard Span could more than make up for the Kubel and Cuddyer departures. The staff remains a bit of a question, but just keeping Morneau & Mauer in the lineup could get Ron Gardenhire's team within sniffing distance of .500. Remember, this was still a playoff team two years ago, and beyond the Tigers, the Central looks pretty weak. It's an "over" for us in Minneapolis.

OTHERS: It's a new era on the South Side with the Chicago White Sox (75 ½), but there are no guarantees it's going to be a better one. Given the choice of keeping manager Ozzie Guillen or GM Kenny Williams, we suspect most Sox fans would have opted for Guillen; instead, Ozzie bolts for the Marlins and the Chisox keep Williams, whose personnel moves (Alex Rios and Adam Dunn in particular) are looking more curious every year, while Robin Ventura, with no managerial experience, takes Guillen's place. Outfielders Juan Pierre and Carlos Quentin and former ace Mark Buehrle are gone, too, while Williams decided to keep the disappointing Rios and, against all logic, 1B/DH Dunn after one of the most miserable seasons at the plate on record a year ago. Quality reinforcements are few. Why do we think the Chisox struggle to hit 70 wins? Look "under" at The Cell.

We admit that Prince Fielder's addition to the Detroit Tigers (91 ½) doesn't guarantee Jim Leyland's team a spot in the World Series. But the rest of the Central collapsed in 2011 around the Tigers, who finished as the only team above .500 in the division and ahead by 15 games on closing day. Does Detroit regress from last year's 95-67 record? Hard to see that unless Miguel Cabrera completely implodes in his move to 3B, and Leyland has trouble finding at bats for everyone at the corner IF positions and DH (Brandon Inge could be the odd man out). Still, it's a nice problem to have, and, more than likely, Cabrera and Delmon Young benefit greatly from Fielder's presence in the lineup. The staff, led by Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, is the best in this division. And we know spring results don't mean anything, but the Tigers were faring well this March in Lakeland. All looking good in Motown, even better if swinging by nearby Lafayette Coney Island for one of those indescribably good coneys before the game. It should be an "over" again at Comerica Park.

The Cleveland Indians (78 ½) were one of the surprise packages of 2011 before the bottom fell out after the All-Star break to another sub-.500 finish. Developments since for Manny Acta's bunch haven't necessarily gone better, inclduing the bizarre story of the pitcher who used to be known as Fausto Carmona. Meanwhile, Acta is still waiting for the Ubaldo Jimenez the Tribe thought it acquired at the trade deadline from the Rockies to begin pitching like the guy who impressed everyone so much in Denver. The lineup can also not count upon CF Grady Sizemore staying off the DL and simply picking up where he left off a few years ago, and DH Travis Hafner has a lot of wear and tear. We suspect the Tribe looks more like the team that fell apart down the stretch last season than the one that broke from the gate so encouragingly. Look "under" at Progressive Field.

Were it not for a surprise surge above .500 in 2003, the Kansas City Royals (78 ½) would be breathing down the necks of the Pirates for the longest streak of losing seasons in Ameircan sports history. And we don't see where KC is going to improve eight games from last year's 71-91 to get over this win total of 78½, especially with closer Joakim Soria (due for Tommy John surgery) now shut down for the season before camp breaks in Surprise; among other things, Soria was also prime trade bait for GM Dayton Moore. We like some of the young pieces at Ned Yost's disposal (1B Eric Hosmer looks like a star to us), but counting upon journeymen such as Bruce Chen and Felipe Paulino as the second and third starting pitchers is playing with fire. We know the Central is shaky, and the BBQ is real good in K.C. (can't wait to get some burnt ends at Arthur Bryant's), but 78½ is asking a bit much. It's an "under" for us at Kauffman Stadium.

AL WEST: BEST BET...Talk about flying under the radar! The Oakland A's (71 ½) are almost undetectable these days, and if not for the curious signing of Manny Ramirez might not have made any headlines at all in the offseason. Any contributions from Manny will have to wait until near Memorial Day anyway because of his 50-game suspension. And Billy Beane once again traded or let walk several key contributors (Andrew Bailey, Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, David DeJesus among them). But Beane might have patched together a serviceable lineup, especially if Cuban free agent OF Yoenis Cespedes (who hit a homer in the opening series split vs. the Mariners in Japan) is as good as advertised, and we suspect OF/DH Seth Smith, who should get more at bats than he did at Colorado, will prove a very useful addition. Also, watch 2B Jemile Weeks develop into one of the AL's most exciting players. The starting rotation, as usual, has some new names, but the A's farm system continues to produce big league arms every year. It's not asking too much to get over this 71½ total (remember, the A's won 74 last year), so we look "over" at the Coliseum, where the BBQ down the 3rd base line remains one of the best in the bigs..

OTHERS: It's hard to believe the Seattle Mariners (71 ½) are off of their two lowest-scoring editions in history. This from an expansion franchise that had some truly awful years after its inception in 1977. But even those expansion Mariners, with bats like Ruppert Jones' and Juan Bernhardt's, had more pop than the current roster, one in which we cannot identify any power source unless C/DH Jesus Montero, the trophy of the Michael Pineda trade with the Yankees, is really the next Mike Piazza. Although Montero impressed in our recent visit to Peoria, it's way too soon to tell, especially with Montero having only a handful of big league at bats. Maybe king-sized OF Carlos Peguero emerges as a power source. Whatever, GM Jack Zduriencik is on the hot seat, and though some forecast a mild recovery from last year's 67-95 train wreck, we're not feeling it from Eric Wedge's bunch. Another "under" for us at Safeco Field.

For a team off of back-to-back World Series appearances and having won 96 games a year ago, we think there might be some value in the Texas Rangers (91 ½) and their win number. Sure, there were a few bumps in the offseason, with ace C.J. Wilson leaving (for the rival Angels!), and CF Josh Hamilton suffering an alcohol relapse. We'd watch that Hamilton situation closely, but Nolan Ryan believes his team answered the Wilson defection by nabbing the top prized import from Japan, Yu Darvish, who could emerge as the ace of the staff. The Rangers also kept OF Nelson Cruz in the fold, and should still be able to score runs in bunches. Even with Albert Pujols now in Anaheim, we still like the everyday Texas lineup a bit more. The price is fair, so it's an "over" for us in Arlington.

TOUGH TO CALL: While all fans of the LA Angels of Anaheim (91 ½) seem to be making World Series plans after the offseason additions of Albert Pujols and the aforementioned C.J. Wilson, we're not quite as sure. First, the Rangers present a difficult obstacle in the West. Second, the Halo bullpen threatens to be a weak link if young closer Jordan Walden regresses after blowing 10 saves a year ago, most of those after the All-Star break. There is also some advancing age in the corner OF spots with Vernon Wells and Torii Hunter, making the fleet Peter Bourjos have to cover even more round in CF. The Halos should contend, and Pujols adds a much-needed dimension to the atttack, but we're not sure they can overtake the Rangers. It's a no call for us in Anaheim.

Next issue: NL "futures" preview...


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