In 2012, there was no such thing as a mediocre American League team. It was a year of eight contenders and six also-rans, separated by a distance wider than the vast left-center gap at Seattle’s Safeco Field.
Consider: The National League had five teams win between 76 and 84 games. The American League had none — the first time that happened in either league during the wild card era, according to STATS LLC.
But as is the case with Safeco — where the fences are moving in this winter — perhaps the AL’s competitive gap will close in 2013.
While the defending champion Tigers should be more talented this year than in 2012 — Anibal Sanchez is back, Torii Hunter has arrived, and Victor Martinez is expected to return from injury — the league’s bottom six teams made sincere efforts to improve, with varying degrees of success.
Here’s our assessment of those half-dozen teams, ranking their moves (not necessarily their postseason chances) from best to worst.
For each club, the key question is this: To what extent have they meaningfully addressed the weaknesses that left them with a losing record in 2012?
OK, so this was the easy one.
Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos has turned over roughly half his 25-man roster since the middle of last season, and he did so with names you know.
Reigning National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, four-time All-Star Mark Buehrle and two-time All-Star Josh Johnson now account for 60 percent of the Toronto rotation. If holdovers Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow pitch up to their potential, the Blue Jays could have the game’s best starting staff.
The lineup underwent a similar transformation. For the season opener, John Gibbons’ lineup likely will include no more than three of the players John Farrell used in Game 162 last year. Jose Reyes and Maicer Izturis are the new middle infield, with Melky Cabrera taking over in left with a chance to resurrect his reputation and career. Super-utility dynamo Emilio Bonifacio was the most underrated acquisition of them all.
I’m concerned about the heightened expectations placed on star personalities unfamiliar with one another, but Jose Bautista has the stature to resolve any chemistry issues by becoming the undisputed leader of this team.
In the end, Bautista and Blue Jays fans have what they wanted for years — a roster capable of winning the World Series. Even coming off a 73-89 season, a playoff berth is regarded as the minimum threshold for a successful season in Toronto.
The Red Sox have had a good offseason. Not great, but good. And yet, there’s still a chance they will finish fourth or fifth in the balanced AL East.
If you believed (as I did) that they needed to change their clubhouse culture, well, the additions of Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, David Ross and (finally) Mike Napoli should make for a more professional environment.
The bullpen will be better, too. Instead of Bobby Valentine clumsily choosing between Alfredo Aceves and Mark Melancon to begin the year, the even-tempered Farrell has Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey to close, with Koji Uehara and (maybe) Daniel Bard to offer stability in the seventh and eighth innings.
The biggest concern remains the rotation. Newly signed Ryan Dempster doesn’t exactly have a robust track record in the American League, and returning starters Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Felix Doubront must improve upon ERAs of 4.82, 4.56 and 4.86, respectively.
As it stands today, the Red Sox have no better than a mediocre starting rotation when compared with the rest of the league. And mediocre starting rotations tend to produce mediocre seasons.
The Royals were roundly criticized for parting with super-prospect Wil Myers in their blockbuster with Tampa Bay. Yet, look at their rotation now: James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, Wade Davis and Luis Mendoza, Bruce Chen or Luke Hochevar.
Is it on par with Detroit’s? No. But it’s probably second best in the AL Central, close enough that Kansas City is within striking distance in the event of a significant pitching injury on the Tigers’ staff.
Yes, general manager Dayton Moore largely failed to address a lineup that finished third from the bottom of the AL in runs scored. It seems he’s wagering (quite reasonably) that the maturation of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, along with a full season of Salvador Perez, will improve the offensive output organically. And he may be right.
In general, the Royals made enough upgrades that they will be the trendy pick to finish second in the division.
My analogy for the Indians: They ended the season with two torn UCLs and only had Tommy John surgery on one.
The Indians had the worst ERA in the AL last year (4.78). They also scored the second-fewest runs — a shortcoming GM Chris Antonetti addressed with the acquisitions of Nick Swisher and Mark Reynolds. Unfortunately, neither of them can pitch.
Cleveland’s starting rotation doesn’t look much better than the one that flopped in 2012: Justin Masterson is not a true No. 1; Ubaldo Jimenez has been a disappointment in Cleveland; Brett Myers was a reliever in 2012; Zach McAllister was a pleasant surprise last year; Carlos Carrasco is a question mark coming off Tommy John surgery.
Many observers believe the three-team trade with Arizona and Cincinnati was a win for the Indians, as they acquired high-end starter Trevor Bauer and talented outfielder Drew Stubbs. But the deal also cost them Shin-Soo Choo, arguably their best all-around player.
The Indians should be better in 2013. But they didn’t make a game-changing move this winter.
The Mariners wanted to sign Josh Hamilton. He went to the division rival Angels. They had a trade in place for Justin Upton. He rejected it.
So, rebuffed in his effort to acquire a lineup-altering, All-Star slugger, Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik opted for quantity. He signed Jason Bay. He traded for Kendrys Morales. He signed Raul Ibañez. And Wednesday, he parted with catcher John Jaso in a three-way deal that brought Mike Morse back to Seattle.
The Mariners, who finished last in the AL with 619 runs last year, absolutely will have an improved lineup in 2013. That was going to happen, anyway, considering potential mainstays Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager have gained valuable major-league experience.
But my greatest concern about the Mariners is that so much of their plan hinges on Montero’s ability to be an everyday catcher at age 23. There were questions about that when Seattle acquired him from the Yankees. And there are questions about that now, after advanced defensive metrics did not look favorably upon his 56 games behind the plate in 2012.
If Montero has to become the DH roughly 70 percent of the time or more, Zduriencik will need to call yet another audible. That probably will involve promoting 2012 first-round pick Mike Zunino to become the everyday catcher. (Zunino amassed an OPS of 1.137 in his first 44 minor-league games.) In sum, the Mariners’ recent moves suggest they are prepared to give up on the disappointing Justin Smoak, a centerpiece of the Cliff Lee trade three years ago.
Another worry: The Mariners must add at least one reliable starting pitcher from the outside to replace Jason Vargas, who went to the Angels in the Morales trade.
The Twins barely avoided finishing 2012 with the AL’s worst team ERA, a sign that general manager Terry Ryan needed to overhaul his pitching staff this offseason. He’s made a number of moves, but the most impactful upgrades — Trevor May and Alex Meyer, who arrived in trades for Ben Revere and Denard Span, respectively — are prospects who could have little immediate impact on the Twins’ major-league fortunes.
Ryan added three starters who spent last year in the National League — Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey and Vance Worley — and it’s hard to envision any of them as a No. 1 or No. 2 starter in the AL this year. (Pelfrey probably has the highest upside but is coming off Tommy John surgery.) Lefty Scott Diamond is the top holdover, but he underwent offseason surgery to remove a bone chip from his pitching elbow.
The Twins’ routine postseason appearances are receding further into the past, and this rotation won’t be able to outpitch the Royals or White Sox, to say nothing of the Tigers. The lineup is creeping closer to league average, with Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau healthy again. But these Twins won’t finish with a winning record, unless their rotation improves drastically between now and Opening Day.