By Dan Schlossberg
Last fall, the Toronto Blue Jays missed making the playoffs by the slimmest of margins. It won’t happen again.
After finishing fourth in the formidable AL East with a 91-71 record, the Jays beefed up their rotation with Kevin Gausman and Yuseo Kikuchi, extended Jose Berrios, and obtained Gold Glove third baseman Matt Chapman from Oakland. Other than a bullpen that needs help, the Jays have an All-Star cast headed by MVP contender Vladimir Guerrero and holdovers George Springer, Bo Bichette, and Teoscar Hernandez.
Tampa Bay, which always finds a way, won’t win 100 again but will be tough — especially now that Wander Franco enters his first full season. The Rays also get power from Brandon Lowe, Mike Zunino, and Randy Arozarena plus pitching from Shane McClanahan and ex-Yankee Corey Kluber but losing reliever Pete Fairbanks (injured) is a problem even innovative manager Kevin Cash can’t solve.
Both Boston and New York bank on big hitters to overcome pitching deficiencies. The Red Sox, defeated by the Astros in the 2021 AL Championship Series, roll out Rafael Devers, J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, and newly-signed Trevor Story to flatten opponents but will miss lefties Chris Sale (injured again) and Eduardo Rodriguez (left for Detroit as free agent). The Sox were so desperate they signed over-the-hill Rich Hill and fellow vagabond Michael Wacha.
Keeping sluggers Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge healthy (and getting the latter signed) are top priorities for manager Aaron Boone, who gets a big boost from newcomer Josh Donaldson but desperately needs comebacks from DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, Joey Gallo, and Aaron Hicks. New No. 1 catcher Kyle Higashioka became a sudden slugger in spring training but is it sustainable? Gerrit Coleand Luis Severino head a so-so rotation backed by a better bullpen, led by lethal lefty Aroldis Chapman.
Baltimore will lead the majors in losses but has wisely moved back its left-field fence nearly 30 feet so the scores won’t be so lopsided. Trey Mancini and Cedric Mullins, a 30-30 man last year, lead the attack but both have been bandied about in trade talk.
One team virtually certain to reverse its fortunes is the Minnesota Twins. Look for surprise signee Carlos Correa to lead a rebound that reverses last year’s 73-89 mark and knocks off the White Sox in the Central. Mighty Minny, which once hit a record 307 home runs in a season, is powered by Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, Miguel Sano, and ex-Yankee Gary Sanchez, while newcomers Sonny Gray, Chris Archer, Chris Paddack, and Dylan Bundy bolster the rotation. Emilio Pagan, just acquired from San Diego, joins a bullpen that may need more bolstering.
Chicago won 93 games to take the division last year but lost three good arms in Carlos Rodon, Ryan Tepera, and Craig Kimbrel. That leaves Tony La Russa, oldest manager in the game, with Jose Abreu, Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, newcomer A.J. Pollock, and comeback candidate Eloy Jimenez on the attack and Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease, Dallas Keuchel, and Michael Kopech on the mound. A knee injury to All-Star Lance Lynn could prove devastating despite a pen inhabited by Liam Hendricks, who led the AL in saves, and Joe Kelly, signed as a free agent.
The could even be a Tiger in the American League tank; Detroit went 77-85 to finish third under A.J. Hinch last year and has added a bunch of blue-chip rookies to the varsity roster. The team has also signed defensive standouts Javy Baez, a shortstop, and Tucker Barnhart, a catcher, plus pitchers Eduardo Rodriguez, Michael Pineda, and Andrew Chafin. The big bat still belongs to Miguel Cabrera, backed by Jonathan Schoop, Jeimer Candalario, Austin Meadows, and rookie Spencer Torkelson. Kids Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal follow E-Rod as starters, backed by the left-right closer tandem of Gregory Soto and Michael Fulmer (yes, he’s still hanging around).
Kansas City (74-88 with a late rush last year) is also improving. Salvador Perez, who led the majors in runs batted in, will have men on base again with Whit Merrifield, Andrew Benintendi, and Carlos Santana in the lineup. Rookie Bobby Witt, Jr. could also make an impact. Aging but experienced Zack Greinke returns to lead a young pitching staff whose best incumbent is closer Scott Barlow.
Even Terry Francona won’t be able to save Cleveland from a cellar season and awful nickname. The team wisely re-signed switch-hitting slugger Jose Ramirez for five years, has another 30-homer man in Franmil Reyes, and owns a pair of top pitchers in starter Shane Bieber and closer Emmanual Clase. There’s not much else — to be expected from a bottom-feeder payroll of $51 million [Max Scherzer alone makes almost that much].
It won’t be the same Old West in the American League. The Los Angeles Angels have re-tooled, the Houston Astros have come down a notch, and the Seattle Mariners are enjoying an influx of youth in an effort to win its first pennant (you read that right).
The Angels won’t be heaven-sent to rival pitchers if comeback candidates Mik Trout and Anthony Rendon combine with defending MVP Shohei Ohtani to form the best batting troika in the majors. The Angels also have a formidable bullpen, with Aaron Loup, Archie Bradley, and Ryan Tepera behind Raisel Iglesias. That group will be busy even if Noah Syndergaard proves healthy, Michael Lorenzen makes a smooth transition to starting, and Ohtani pitches more often.
Veteran manager Dusty Baker, who has piloted five playoff teams, will miss free agent deserters Carlos Correa and Kendall Graveman but won’t miss extending his streak for most games managed without a world championship. The offense that petered out in the World Series against Atlanta needs an Alex Bregman comeback and big years from Michael Brantley, Yordan Alvarez, Jose Altuve, and AL batting king Yuli Gurriel. The Astros also have to hope 39-year-old Justin Verlander has something left after Tommy John surgery. There’s plenty of pitching in Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia, and Jake Odorizzi but Lance McCullers, Jr. is idled by injury issues again. Ryan Pressly heads a decent pen.
Seattle is depending upon newcomers to fuel its fight for the flag it has never won. The M’s were second to Houston last year with a 90-72 mark and have added sluggers Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suarez, versatile Adam Frazier, and pitchers Robbie Ray and Sergio Romo. Key contributors should be Mitch Haniger, who had 39 homers in 2021; ex-Met Jerred Kelenec; and Ray, who teams with returning Marco Gonzalez to give manager Scott Servais a pair of solid southpaws in his rotation. A spring injury to closer Ken Giles could hurt, however. Ray won the 2021 AL Cy Young in Toronto.
Texas deserves a better fate after spending so much time grabbing headlines before Rob Manfred unleashed 99 days of nuclear winter. The free-spending Rangers won’t repeat the 60-102 ledger that left them in the AL West basement but won’t have enough pitching to contend. Not yet, anyway. The club has nine new players, including heavy hitters Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Mitch Garver, Brad Miller, and Kole Calhoun, plus pitchers Jon Gray, Martin Perez, and Greg Holland.
The one certainty of the season is the selection of the Oakland Athletics to hit bottom. The payroll-slashing, ballpark-seeking team hands a bunch of unknowns to rookie manager Mark Kotsay. Watch out for a rookie catcher named Shea Langeliers, acquired from Atlanta in the Matt Olson trade.
Here’s how the American League should finish:
EAST — Blue Jays, Rays, Red Sox, Yankees, Orioles
CENTRAL — Twins, *White Sox, Tigers, Royals, Guardians
WEST — Angels, *Astros, *Mariners, Rangers, Athletics
(*) Wild cards
ALDS — Blue Jays over White Sox; Twins over Mariners; Astros over Angels
ALCS — Blue Jays over Astros
WORLD SERIES — Braves over Blue Jays
Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ has been covering baseball since 1969. The author of 40 books and a regular speaker about the game, his byline appears in forbes.com, Latino Sports, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Sports Collectors Digest, and elsewhere. E.mail him at email@example.com.