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AL suddenly has six super teams
A baseball executive asked me Thursday if I could remember a time when six teams in one league looked as strong on paper as the Super Six in the American League.
Not all of the Super Six will fulfill expectations. The 2008 Tigers were a last-place flop after adding first baseman Miguel Cabrera and left-hander Dontrelle Willis. The 2011 Red Sox, proclaimed the best Sox team ever by the Boston Herald following the additions of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and left fielder Carl Crawford, failed to even make the playoffs.
Still, the AL arrivals of Angels first baseman Albert Pujols and Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder changed the dynamic of the league, as did the Rangers' signing of Japanese right-hander Yu Darvish and the relatively modest spending by the Yankees and Red Sox.
So, without further ado, here is an updated look at the Super Six, in no particular order. A few late moves could alter the equation. Injuries certainly will, as might trades made before the July 31 non-waiver deadline.
Strength: The lineup.
Manager Jim Leyland rattled off the names in glee Thursday at the Tigers' news conference to introduce Fielder. The first seven hitters in his projected lineup were Austin Jackson, Brennan Boesch, Cabrera, Fielder, Delmon Young, Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta.
"Pretty hard to mess that one up," Leyland said.
The Tigers were fourth in the AL in runs last season. They should be just as good or better without the injured Victor Martinez, and not simply because of Fielder. While Avila likely will regress, a healthy Boesch could erupt hitting in front of Cabrera.
Weakness: Team defense.
Cabrera, blessed with soft hands and a powerful arm, actually might prove adequate at third base — the bar isn't all that high, considering the Cardinals won the 2011 World Series with David Freese at third and the Rangers reached the '10 World Series with Michael Young.
Still, the lack of range on the left side between Cabrera and Peralta is frightening, and Fielder isn't exactly Keith Hernandez at first. Sure, the Tigers will score a ton of runs, but their defense will strain their pitching staff, giving away outs.
X Factor: Rotation depth.
The Tigers clearly aren't content with their rotation beyond right-handers Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello. They pursued Athletics left-hander Gio Gonzalez and other pitchers this offseason, and recently bid for free-agent right-hander Roy Oswalt, only to be told he wasn't interested.
As of now, the fifth starter would come from a group of prospects that includes prized right-hander Jacob Turner.
Strength: Offensive depth.
Pujols is the big addition, but the Angels also anticipate the return of designated hitter Kendrys Morales, who hasn't played since May 29, 2010, due to leg injuries.
Things get complicated from there.
The Angels' surplus of first base/DH types isn't exactly a problem, but if all the candidates are healthy, at least one trade seems inevitable before Opening Day.
First baseman Mark Trumbo could be superfluous after finishing second to Rays right-hander Jeremy Hellickson in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting. Ditto for designated hitter Bobby Abreu, particularly once the Angels decide to play outfielder Mike Trout full-time.
Weakness: Pitching depth/bullpen.
The bullpen, meanwhile, does not appear to be championship-caliber. Free-agent righty LaTroy Hawkins will combine with lefty Scott Downs to set up for closer Jordan Walden, who led the AL with 10 blown saves last season.
X Factor: Trout.
Still only 20, Trout batted only .220/.281/.390 in his first 135 major league plate appearances. He figures to open the season in the minors, but eventually could join with Peter Bourjos and Torii Hunter to give the Angels one of the best defensive outfields in the majors.
The Rangers, deep in pitching?
The signing of Darvish and the move of closer Neftali Feliz to the rotation gives the Rangers six potential quality starters, and the number could grow to seven if the team adds free agent righty Roy Oswalt.
Oswalt, 34, might be an unnecessary gamble — his stuff is down, his health is a concern and he likely would not be as effective in the AL. With or without him, righty Alexi Ogando appears destined to return to the bullpen, helping Mike Adams set up for new closer Joe Nathan.
Weakness: Injuries in the outfield.
The Rangers, though, aren't especially deep in the outfield, where they could use one more right-handed hitter. A significant injury to Hamilton, in particular, would debilitate their offense.
X Factor: The adjustments of Darvish and Feliz.
One exec says, "I would rather bet on Darvish than C.J. Wilson the next five years." OK, but this is Year One, and Darvish will be adapting to a new country, more rigorous schedule and a larger baseball, among other things.
Feliz, meanwhile, never has started in the majors, and must prove he has recovered from his blown save in Game 6 of the World Series. He was so distraught, manager Ron Washington declined to send him back out for the 10th inning.
Strength: Would you believe the rotation?
Colon is now gone, and it's possible that neither Burnett nor Garcia will crack the team's Opening Day five.
Right-handed newcomers Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda will join lefty CC Sabathia and righties Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes. Garcia is effectively the sixth starter, Burnett the seventh — and the Yankees' top prospects, lefty Manuel Banuelos and righty Dellin Betances, are getting closer to the majors.
Lots of options. Good ones, too.
Weakness: Old guys.
X Factor: A-Rod.
Will he stay healthy? Will he approach his old form?
Keep in mind, the Yankees still must fill two spots — the bench role held by Eric Chavez last season (Chavez, a free agent, could be back) and the DH void created by the trade of Jesus Montero and retirement of Jorge Posada. The questions about Rodriguez make those jobs even more significant.
Strength: The offense.
Lest anyone forget, the Red Sox led the majors in runs last season, finishing just ahead of the Yankees.
Weakness: The bullpen.
At this point, the revamped bullpen is more of a question than a weakness. Several teams, however, are concerned about Bailey staying healthy. Melancon is moving from a non-competitive team in the NL Central (Astros) to a fiercely competitive one in the AL East. And righty Bobby Jenks, recovering from back surgery, is unlikely to be ready for the start of spring training.
X Factor: The fried chicken and beer crowd.
We're talking, of course, about the Red Sox rotation. But if the Sox sign free-agent right-hander Roy Oswalt or Edwin Jackson, this group actually could prove a strength.
Bard could be the fifth starter in that scenario, and the Sox would be deep, at least in spring training. Righty Alfredo Aceves and lefty Andrew Miller would be options, as would non-roster additions such as righties Aaron Cook, Carlos Silva and Vicente Padilla. By the second half, righty Daisuke Matsuzaka could be another alternative, if he makes a successful recovery from Tommy John surgery.
Strength: Starting pitching.
As one rival executive marveled, "They've got two lefties who throw in the high 90s — not bad."
The exec, of course, was referring to David Price and Matt Moore. The Rays also have two accomplished righties, James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson, plus two more who are quite good, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann.
The best part of the Rays' offseason is that they kept Davis and Niemann and still added two left-handed bats, signing first baseman Carlos Pena for $7.5 million and designated hitter Luke Scott for $6 million.
Pitching and defense are their strengths, and several of their pitching prospects — righty Chris Archer, lefty Alex Torres, righty Alex Cobb — are major league ready or close.
The Rays likely will be the only team in the Super Six with a payroll below $125 million. In fact, they might only be around half that.
Their lack of flexibility limits not only their offseason moves, but their trades at the July 31 non-waiver deadline, when they are unable to pursue expensive upgrades.
Either Davis, who will earn $1.5 million this season, or Niemann, who will receive either $3.2 million or $2.75 million in arbitration, could be moved in spring training or after the season starts.
The trade value of center fielder B.J. Upton, earning $7 million in his final season before free agency, will be diminished once he takes the field Opening Day.
Under the new collective-bargaining agreement, only players who are with their clubs for an entire season are subject to draft-pick compensation.
X Factor: Scott.
He is coming off surgery last July to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder, but averaged 25 homers and an .845 OPS with the Orioles from 2008-10.
The Rays need him to be productive, needing to max out every dollar they spend.
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