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This 2012 Yankees team certainly has the makings to be the best team in the game, but it won’t be easy after competition around the league has gotten more fierce:
The Tigers, who of course beat the Yankees in the ALDS last season, improved their AL Central Division winning ballclub with the signing of Prince Fielder, formulating perhaps the best 3-4 hitting combination in the game with Miguel Cabrera. Neither slugger is going to provide much in the way of defense as corner infielders, but they will manage. Brennan Boesch is healthy and figures to be the primary number 2 hitter in Jim Leyland’s lineup, where he should have a great opportunity to put up some break-out performance type numbers. If Austin Jackson can just cut down his strikeouts totals, he has the chance to become a perennial All-Star type player.
We know Justin Verlander can carry the starting rotation all by himself, but unlike past years, he won’t have to for Detroit to excel. Look for Max Scherzer and Doug Fister to continue their improvement, as they began to do in the 2011 playoffs, pitching behind the reigning MVP and Cy Young Award winner. Even if Jose Valverde can’t be 100% automatic like he was in 2011, he still has turned into one of the game’s best closers, for one of the game’s best bullpens, overall.
The Rangers made a splash by replacing C.J. Wilson in their starting rotation with not only Japan’s young pitching phenom Yu Darvish (an early Rookie of the Year favorite of mine) but also, ex-closer Neftali Felix. Both righties possess number 1 type stuff and either is highly capable of becoming the staff ace. But speaking of a potential ace, don’t forget about Derek Holland and how huge he was for manager Ron Washington, helping Texas to advance to the World Series for a second consecutive year in 2011. Joe Nathan takes over as closer and has quality arms in the middle innings that will help him out in Alexi Ogando and Mike Adams.
The Rangers offense will again be dangerous 1 through 9, especially if All-Stars Michael Young and Adrian Beltre can repeat their 2011 performances. Impending free agent and 2010 AL MVP Josh Hamilton will be out to prove a thing or two and could be fully motivated enough to put up his best offensive totals yet.
The Angels had down years in both 2010 and 2011, but after acquiring Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, they appear to be fully capable of reclaiming the division crown. Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Ervan Santana and Wilson are as solid of a 1-4 you’re going to find. Jordan Walden was impressive as a rookie closer in 2011, but he did blow ten saves. Having a year under his belt now should improve his save percentage.
Howard Kendrick is another guy to keep an eye on for break0ut performance, as he will be batting second in the lineup, in front of Pujols. Kendrys Morales is finally back and playing again, and if he can be the hitter he was before his gruesome broken leg, Mike Scioscia’s squad has to like their odds in 2012.
The Red Sox certainly seem to have new life with Bobby Valentine in charge, and after the way their season ended in 2011, new life was certainly imminent. Though the Sox have some more holes in their roster entering 2012 than in previous years, they still have a chance to be amongst the best teams in the game. After all, they did have the best record for almost all of the 2011 season until September rolled around. You can expect Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez to be in the MVP race yet again, as well as Kevin Youkilis if he can just stay healthy. Carl Crawford not only has to have a big rebound year (once he returns from his wrist injury) for his sake, but also for the Sox, whose destiny seems to hinge mostly on how much or how little Crawford can contribute.
Losing closer Jonathan Papelbon was a big deal, though, and after his replacement, Andrew Bailey mysteriously injured his thumb (requiring surgery that can keep him out about half the season), Papelbon’s absence will only loom larger. The bullpen overall has taken a significant step back, especially if Daniel Bard is going to used as a starter, which may or may not be the right move for Boston.
The Rays will be right in the thick of things in September because of their pitching. David Price had a subpar year in 2011, but don’t let that fool you. File that one under the fluke category. All eyes will be on Matt Moore and rightfully so, after the dominance he showed in the small but meaningful sampling he received late in 2011. Unlike a lot of young pitching phenoms, Moore has built up his innings totals in the minors, so he doesn’t figure to have any inning restrictions later on in the season.
On paper, their bullpen isn’t overly impressive. But most people thought that last year, and were wrong. Joe Madden manages his bullpen as unconventionally as you’ll see, but it’s hard to argue with his decisions given the results. As myself and most people are finally beginning to learn, don’t start playing the games on paper with this team. Because if you begin to think the Rays looked overmatched, they’re going to find a way to prove you wrong, thanks in large to their exceptional young and talented pitching staff.
I believe the new format of the playoffs with the additional wild-card spot favors the Yankees, as long as they manage to win their division. When it’s all said and done, I expect Joe Giardi’s squad to win the AL East, winning 97 games, 4 ahead of Boston and 5 ahead of the Rays. I think it’s too soon to tell right now how things will shape in the playoffs, but I do believe the Yankees can be viewed as a favorite to reach the World Series and win it all.