by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Believe it or not, baseball season is just around the corner!

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 April 3, 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 daily TC plus two other featured releases, available online at www.goldsheet.com.

As always, thanks to TGS Baseball Consultants Daniel M. Gray and Dr. Paul DiGiovanni for their contributions.  Now, a look at the American League.

Play ball!

AL EAST: BEST BET...Fans at Camden Yards are advised to enjoy 3B Manny Machado while they can; with free agency looming after 2018, this could be Machado's last full season for the Baltimore Orioles (80.5). The same applies to closer extraordinaire Zach Britton, who posted some of the best relief numbers in history (47-for-47 saves, 0.54 ERA) a year ago. For the time being, however, both are still in the Oriole fold, as is last year's MLB homer leader, DH Mark Trumbo, who socked 47 dingers in 2016 and re-signed in the offseason. As usual, for the Birds to make a playoff run depends upon consistency in a so-so rotation, though righties Kevin Gausman and Chris Tillman are dependable options. Mostly, however, we expect the O's to keep playing hard for Buck Showalter, who has been able to get his troops to regularly punch above their weight in recent seasons. We have a hard time envisioning a 9-loss drop from last year's 89 wins. It's an "over" for us at Camden Yards, still worth the visit if you can quickly get in and out of downtown Baltimore and allow enough time to enjoy some of Boog Powell's BBQ and Eutaw Street, or some of the sinful sausages at the Polock Johnny's stand on the concourse.

OTHERS: Sacrilege? So some might accuse us for not jumping on the bandwagon of the Boston Red Sox (92.5), expected by many to post 2016 Cubs-like numbers after adding fireball lefty Chris Sale in a deal that required Dave Dombrowksi to part with many prized prospects to the Chisox, including touted Cuban 3B Yoan Moncada. The thought is that adding Sale to a rotation that already included 2016 AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello, plus David Price, makes Boston an automatic favorite in the AL. We're not so sure, because Price disappointed in his first full season at Fenway Park a year ago, and Sale was a bit erratic in 2016, too. Meanwhile there is a Big Papi void after David Ortiz retired; we'll see if FA addition Mitch Moreland can fill those large shoes. And with expected new set-up man Tyler Thornburg (acquired from Milwaukee) sidelined for much of March in Fort Myers, the bullpen still has a few questions. Plenty still to like in Boston, especially with RF Mookie Betts now at an elite level, but we're not sure the Bosox are ready to justify the hype, which is even more amped-up than usual. It's an "under" for us at Fenway.

Is losing Edwin Encarnacion and his 42 omers to the Indians in free agency enough to keep the Toronto Blue Jays (84.5) out of the playoffs for the first time since 2014? Well, maybe, especially if DH Kendry Morales, signed from the Royals to be Encarnacion's effective replacement, can't post somewhat-similar numbers. But this is still a solid lineup featuring dangerous power, with 3B Josh Donaldson, SS Troy Tulowitzki, RB Jose Bautista, and Morales all potential 30+ homer guys, and C Russell Martin remains a steadying influence behind the plate and a very productive offensive force for a backstop. Meanwhile, Kevin Pillar is almost non-pariel on defense in CF. The staff remains more than serviceable with Aaron Sanchez and Marco Estrada a solid 1-2 at the top of the rotation, and Roberto Osuna (36 saves) an effective closer. More reasons to look "over" at Rogers Centre, with the locals perhaps happily distracted the first few weeks of the season if the Leafs actually make the Stanley Cup playoffs.

In the past, the Tampa Bay Rays (77.5) have proven they can compete with the big spenders in this division. But not last season, and we wonder how the current collection at the Trop can bump up ten wins for manager Kevin Cash from last year's 68-94 debacle. Simply, Tampa Bay does not score enough runs, and we doubt adding OF Colby Rasmus from the Astros is enough to jump-start the attack, especially with former All-Star 3B Evan Longoria becoming more injury-prone in recent years. There is some hope with a pitching staff full of live arms, though the Rays have had annual injury problems in their rotation, and the much-maligned Chris Archer pitched in some terrible luck last season while recording an MLB-worst 19 losses. Though Ex-Nats C Wilson Ramos, who might not be available until May as he continues to recover from last year's knee injury, might be a worthwhile addition. If all goes well, Tampa Bay might make a push toward .500. But lack of depth, and the unlikelihood the Rays will (or can) be a buyer at the trade deadline just in case they are still in the playoff hunt into August, is further discouragement. We're expecting an "under" at the Trop but looking forward to entertaining play-by-play work as always on Fox Sports Sun from one of our favorites, Dewayne Staats.

We're not used to seeing the once-proud New York Yankees (82.5) as sellers at the trade deadline, as they were last July, though Joe Girardi righted the ship down the stretch to at least get the Bronx Bombers to the edge of the AL Wild Card mix. Part of the late surge was due to rookie C Gary Sanchez, who posted some Ruthian-like numbers late in the season when accounting for 20 homers in just 53 games. Now, with promising 1B Greg Bird back in the fold after missing last season with shoulder surgery, and raw RF Aaron Judge possessing enormous power, the Yanks are relying more on young talent than usual. Where New York eventually lands this season, however, largely depends upon a rotation full of uncertainties. Righty Masahiro Tanaka remains the presumptive ace and has enjoyed a solid Grapefruit League in Tampa. But none of the others in the projected rotation (including a past-his-prime CC Sabathia and erratic Michael Pineda as the 2-3 starters) recorded a winning record last season. It is fair to ask how many leads will be turned over to closer Aroldis Chapman, who returns in a high-priced FA deal after being effectively loaned to the Cubs for the stretch drive last season. Lots of variables to consider in The Bronx, where we will simply pass and see what transpires.

AL CENTRAL: BEST BET...Even before unexpected developments in the offseason, it was fair to ask if the championship window had closed for the Kansas City Royals (76.5), who dropped from back-to-back World Series visits and the crown in 2015 to a mere .500 last season. Then young fireballer Yordano Ventura tragically perished in a winter auto accident, adding a pall around Kauffman Stadium. There are some other less-sobering reasons for concern, with the likes of 1B Eric Hosmer, CF Lorenzo Cain, 3B Mike Moustakas, and SS Alcides Escobar all in contract years, which creates the possibility of a fire sale at the trade deadline. Moreover, last year's homer leader Kendrys Morales moved to the Blue Jays in free agency, and relief ace Wade Davis, one of the cornerstones of the lights-out bullpens of the World Series years, was traded to the Cubs in a deal that brought OF Jorge Soler. So why aren't we bearish on the Royals? Because, if there's no midseason dispersal, the core of the roster is still similar to recent playoff years, the team generally doesn't beat itself in the field, C Salvador Perez is now a perennial All-Star, and the rotation appears a bit underrated, especially staff ace Danny Duffy (12-3 last season). Kelvin Herrera also remains a functional, and at times dominant, closer. Mostly, however, it's that low win total that gets us thinking "over" at the Big K when we're not dreaming of the burnt ends at nearby Arthur Bryant's, adjacent to where the old KC Municipal Stadium once stood.

OTHERS: The Detroit Tigers (82.5) appear a couple of injuries away from falling out of contention. Unfortunately, with an aging lineup, that's a significant concern, especially with key cogs like SP Jordan Zimmerman, 3B Nick Castellanos, and RF J.D. Martinez (hurt again this spring) all missing significant time a year ago, and the likes of 1B Miguel Cabrera and DH Victor Martinez also acknowledged injury risks. If Zimmerman can't bounce back from last year's oblique problems, the rotation will have to be stabilized by youngsters around 1-2 starters Justin Verlander (who enjoyed a nice bounce-back campaign in 2016) and last year's AL Rookie of the Year, Michael Fulmer, while the days of Francisco Rodriguez (along with the Cubs' John Lackey the last two active players from the Angels' 2002 World Series champs) as a top-end closer are way back in the rear-view mirror. True, this is still a scary-looking lineup, but a key injury or two could cause everything to unravel in a hurry. That's a risk we don't want to take as we project "under" at Comerica Park while looking forward to our next visit and the camaraderie with the pleasant fans across the street at Hockeytown before the games.

The Minnesota Twins (74.5) dropped off of the radar a season ago after a surprising 83-win trip in 2015 under then first-year skipper Paul Molitor. But last year was a 103-loss mess exacerbated by an injury-devastated pitching staff that posted an AL-worst 5.08 ERA (ouch!). Is a quick recovery in order? Perhaps, though it's hard to get too excited about a rotation in which Ervin Santana and Hector Santiago are the closest things to aces. But if healthy, the starters might be serviceable, as could be the bullpen if closer Glen Perkins, who has not pitched much this spring in the Grapefruit League, can stay off the DL. We suspect, however, that touted youngsters like OFs Bryan Buxton, Eddie Rosario, and Max Kepler could be ready to flourish, and that power-laden Miguel Sano and his 270 pounds can make the transition to 3B. Keeping 2B Brian Dozier, off of a career year when hitting 42 homers, in the fold was a plus, and 1B Joe Mauer, a onetime annual MVP candidate, is a veteran presence in the lineup. We're sticking out our necks a bit, but will be paying attention to the entertaining Fox Sports North announcing combo of Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven to describe an "over" for us at Target Field.

Looking for the most-likely seller at the trade deadline? That would probably be the Chicago White Sox (69.5), who confirmed they were in full rebuild mode in the offseason when trading away SP Chris Sale and CF Adam Eaton for prospects. It would stand to reason, then, that the likes of OF Melky Cabrera, 3B Todd Frazier, and 2B Brett Lawrie, all of whom are likely to have some midseason suitors, plus a number of other vets, are probably the next to go. Now presiding over this re-boot is new manager Rick Renteria, who can't seem to catch a break, moved aside a few miles north at Wrigley Field after one season with the before-they-blossomed Cubs in 2014, replaced by Joe Maddon. Oh, what could have been for Renteria. For the time being, South Side fans have to be satisfied with watching youngsters such as SS Tim Anderson, 3B Yoan Moncada (from the Bosox in the Sale deal), and RHPs Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez (both from the Nats in the Eaton trade) mature collectively. We hope they're patient at whatever they're calling The Cell these days (for the record, it's now Guaranteed Rate Field). It's an "under" for us with the Chisox, though we remain entertained by the play-by-play combo of Hawk Harrelson and Steve Stone, who make homer-ism almost tolerable.

After coming oh-so-close to their first World Series crown since 1948, the Cleveland Indians (92.5) appear poised to do what their AL Central rival Royals did when going to the Fall Classic back-to-back in 2014 & '15. The Tribe added even more pop to their already-formidable lineup in the offseason when signing Edwin Encarnacion (42 HRs in 2016) from the Blue Jays; he'll now rotate between 1B and DH with Carlos Santana, who belted 34 round-trippers himself last season. And CF Michael Brantley is now healthy after missing almost all of last season. Still, Terry Francona has to fit a few new pieces into the puzzle after supporting-cast characters such as Rajai Davis, Mike Napoli, and Coco Crisp exited after playing key roles down the stretch and into the playoffs. And the Tribe's rotation is full of up-and-down components, though Corey Kluber (18-9 last season) is a past Cy Young winner. Still a lot to like at Progressive Field, especially the dynamite young left side of the infield (SS Francisco Lindor & 3B Jose Ramirez), plus a bullpen anchored by untouchable set-up man Andrew Miller and reliable closer Cody Allen. We think Cleveland gets back to the playoffs and maybe the World Series...we're just not sure the Indians get to 93 wins. So we'll take a pass on the Tribe.

AL WEST: BEST BET...We feel we have to offer a bit of a disclaimer on the Oakland A's (73.5), who we inadvertently saw three times in as many days last week in our annual whirlwind trip to the Cactus League in Phoenix. The A's never trailed in any of the games we saw while looking like the 1927 Yankees at the plate, lashing out 28 runs in that 3-game span! We're relatively sure that won't translate into the regular season But the everyday lineup has a functional look about it, with CF Rajai Davis, 3B Trevor Plouffe, and OF Matt Joyce all more-than-serviceable offseason additions, LF Khris Davis off of an unexpected 42-homer campaign, and promising Ryon Healy ready to barge into the lineup, either at 3B, 1B, or DH. An unexpected run at .500 will require one-time staff ace Sonny Gray to recover quickly from last year's back and forearm injuries that contributed to an alarming dip in form. But Billy Beane is nothing if not resourceful, and his farm system continues to produce MLB-quality pitching options for manager Bob Melvin. Flying well beneath the radar, the A's appear a good "over" to us at that modest total, as we look forward to our next visit to the Coliseum, not as bad to watch a ballgame as its detractors suggest (unless the crowd hits 20,000 or so and you have to navigate the too-small and too-crowded one and only concourse at the stadium).

No matter having MLB's best player (CF Mike Trout) on the roster, the LA Angels of Anaheim (79.5) couldn't get out of their way last season as they dipped to 14 games below .500, which for a time had the rumor mill whirring that either longtime skipper Mike Scioscia was ready to move elsewhere of his own accord, or that owner Arte Moreno might himself hit the eject button on his longtime skipper. Fortunately for Halo fans, neither of those happened, though the on-field product continues to be hamstrung by some of Moreno's dubious personnel decisions of recent seasons (the wasted Josh Hamilton deal comes immediately to mind). Adding 2B Danny Espinosa from the Nats and LF Cameron Maybin from the Tigers should provide some needed upgrades to the lineup, but how much more Scioscia can squeeze out of aging DH Albert Pujols (another Moreno special) remains to be seen. And we haven't even gotten to the real concern, pitching, as Scioscia crosses his fingers that Garrett Richards, the only potential ace on the staff, can return all of the way from torn elbow ligaments, while the bullpen is a question mark after closer Huston Street (6.45 ERA in 2016) imploded last season and dealt with a back strain this March in Tempe. Trout or not, too many questions on this pitching staff to get overly excited about the Halos, so it's an "under" for us at the Big A.

If the Texas Rangers (84.5) get back to the playoffs, they'll want to avoid the Blue Jays, who have KO'd them in the postseason the past two years. Between those playoff exits, the only KO for Texas against Toronto was 2B Rougned Odor landing a straight right to the jaw of the Blue Jays' Jose Bautista in a brawl last May. But the Rangers would rather punch their way to a postseason series win than rely on Odor's fists, and we frankly don't see why they ought to drop 11 wins from last year's 95-67 mark that was good enough to run away with the West. There was some outflow in free agency (Ian Desmond, Mitch Moreland, Carlos Beltran) from the everyday lineup, but Mike Napoli returns for another tour of duty at 1B and DH, and Texas now gets a full season from last year's trade additions CF Carlos Gomez and C Jonathan Lucroy. There are questions in the rotation beyond Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish, though ex-Padre and Marlin Andrew Cashner has flashed some upside in the past. It looks like an "over" for us in Arlington as we contemplate having the nerve to order a "Boomstick" (check it out online) the next time we get to Globe Life Park.

Something has been missing from the Seattle Mariners (85.5) in recent years, as everything has seemed in place for a playoff visit (which hasn't happened at Safeco Field since the 116-win season of 2001), only to fall short. This year, there will be no excuses, as offseason additions SS Jean Segura (trade with D-backs), 1B/DH Danny Valencia (trade with A's), and LF Jerrod Dyson (trade with Royals) could add some electricity to the offense, and, in the case of Dyson, contribute to potential elite defensive outfield alignment that also includes fleet CF Leonys Martin & promising RF Mitch Haniger. But there is not much power at the plate in those outfielders, and we are unconvinced that adding Drew Smyly (trade with Rays) and Yovani Gallardo (trade with O's) has really bolstered a pitching rotation whose parts seem always greater than its sum, especially with the performance of "King Felix" Hernandez having dropped off considerably last season. The potential is there to break the 16-year playoff drought. But we've seen Seattle underachieve too much in the past to jump on the bandwagon...at least not yet. It's a no-play for us at Safeco Field.

Nearly a half-century ago, after the Houston Astros (89.5) reached the .500 level for the first time in 1969, the hype for 1970 was off the charts. "Doing the Houston Pennant Bounce" was one of the headlines into '70, but the Astros flopped, and would not reach their first playoffs for another ten years. Last year was another sobering development for the "Astro-nomicals" (as the one and only Reds play-by-play man Marty Brennaman refers to them) as they dipped to 84-78 after qualifying unexpectedly for the playoffs the year before. Did Houston simply arrive a year or two too soon in 2015, and might 2017 have always been the proper target year for the breakout? Maybe, but we need a bit more evidence that one-time ace lefty Dallas Keuchel, the AL Cy Young Award winner two years ago, has recovered from last season's shoulder injury that contributed to him being a liability as his ERA dipped to 4.55. Keuchel was still in recovery mode in March at West Palm Beach. The rotation thus threatens more work on an often over-taxed bullpen, though manager A.J. Hinch had an effective closer-by-committee (Ken Giles, Luke Gregorson, and Will Harris) last season. The Astros are solid up the middle, especially after adding C Brian McCann in a trade with the Yankees, to go along with 2B Jose Altuve (last year's AL batting champ), SS Carlos Correa, and CF George Springer, while ex-A's and Dodgers RF Josh Reddick looks like a useful FA addition. Pitching questions, however, have us not ready to make a call in Houston, so we pass instead.

Return To Home Page