Josh Hamilton joined forces with Albert Pujols and Mike Trout in Los Angeles, primed to pry the American League pennant from Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez in Detroit.
“They always say, ‘There’s always next year,’ and next year is here,” Angels ace Jered Weaver said.
Not so fast, big boys.
The Toronto Blue Jays want in, too, and they brought a bevy of All-Stars, led by knuckleballer R.A. Dickey and shortstop Jose Reyes, north of the border for their shot.
Tampa Bay locked up Evan Longoria for six more years. The White Sox signed young ace Chris Sale for five. The AL West champion Oakland Athletics are hoping Yoenis Cespedes can keep them on top in a loaded division.
Heck, the Texas Rangers lost Hamilton and clubhouse leader Michael Young and they still think they’re armed to be the best in the West with Yu Darvish and Matt Harrison leading a deep rotation.
And never count out the New York Yankees. They may appear more brittle than bombers in the Bronx. But Mariano Rivera is back for one last season of sawing off bats and closing out wins.
One thing is certain: A bunch of swaggering bats are ready to give the Houston Astros a rude welcome to the American League.
A look at the A.L. in predicted order of finish:
TAMPA BAY RAYS
The spendthrift Rays opened their checkbook to keep Longoria for six more seasons and $100 million. Now, he must stay healthy if light-hitting Tampa Bay is going to make a run in this hefty division. Longoria missed 74 games last season because of a partially torn left hamstring and the Rays went 41-44 without him.
Led by AL Cy Young Award winner David Price and arrow-pointing closer Fernando Rodney, the Rays will be tough to beat no matter how many runs they score. Even with the departure of James Shields and Wade Davis, this staff is deep, and youngsters Jeremy Hellickson, Alex Cobb and Matt Moore are only improving.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
The Blue Jays proved this winter how they think the 20th anniversary of Joe Carter’s World Series-clinching homer in 1993 should be celebrated — with their first trip back to the playoffs since that dramatic win.
GM Alex Anthopoulos went on a trading spree that would make fantasy owners jealous, unloading spare parts and prospects for Dickey, the NL Cy Young Award winner, Reyes, All-Star game MVP Melky Cabrera and former aces Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle.
The dynamic Reyes and Cabrera, returning from a 50-game drug suspension, should set the table for Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. How Bautista’s surgically repaired wrist responds to the rigors of everyday play and how Reyes oft-injured legs do on the turf will determine how potent this offense is.
Toronto’s revamped offense and rotation could be undermined by the back end of the bullpen. Casey Janssen, filled in nicely as the closer when Sergio Santos hurt his shoulder. But Janssen had offseason surgery and started slowly in spring training.
NEW YORK YANKEES
The aging Yankees came into camp in poor health and things quickly got worse. They’ll start the season with Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Phil Hughes on the disabled list.
New York will count on spare parts such as Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay and Brennan Boesch, oft-injured Travis Hafner and Kevin Youkilis to keep Brett Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki zipping around the bases until the big hitters return.
But a top pitching staff led by CC Sabathia, who’s coming back from offseason elbow surgery, and closer Rivera, returning from a torn ACL for one last season, could help this club to their 18th trip to the postseason in 19 years.
BOSTON RED SOX
The one-year experiment with Bobby Valentine a bust, Boston turned to its old pitching coach John Farrell to guide the club out of last place (69-93).
The Red Sox brought in Ryan Dempster. They need Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz to return to form, and John Lackey to be effective after missing all last season because elbow surgery.
Boston was beset by injuries last year. A full season from Jacoby Ellsbury — not to mention another MVP-caliber season like he had in 2011 — would go a long way to helping an offense that could be without David Ortiz (heels) for a time at the start of the season.
The Orioles under vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter made a stunning turnaround last season, going from a team that lost 93 games to winning a wild-card spot with a 93-69 record — Baltimore’s first winning season in 15 years.
And they did it with exuberance, racking up wins in 16 straight extra-inning games and going 29-9 in one-run games, taking the Yankees to a fifth game in the division series. The luck could run out, though, in the rugged East. The Orioles hit just .240 last year and they were 11th in runs scored in the AL. While Manny Machado should make strides, the Orioles didn’t make any major moves to upgrade their offense.
Jim Johnson’s 51 saves were a big reason why the Orioles won so many close ones. Can he repeat the performance in his second year as a full-time closer?
The Tigers feel they have some unfinished business to take care of after being so handily swept by the San Francisco Giants, and the only thing that could keep them from a return trip to the World Series is their bullpen.
Improving a lineup anchored by Triple Crown winner Cabrera and Fielder sounds difficult, but Detroit did it. Martinez is back from the disabled list and Torii Hunter is here to provide a potent lineup with even more punch.
Justin Verlander leads a solid rotation with Max Scherzer and late-season addition Anibal Sanchez. But who will close after Jose Valverde’s meltdown in the playoffs? Manager Jim Leyland may give hard-throwing minor leaguer Bruce Rondon a shot, but he’s never pitched in the big leagues and he’s struggled some this spring.
CHICAGO WHITE SOX
The White Sox made a surprising run under first-year manager Robin Ventura, leading the division into September before fading. They’ve locked up Sale with a five-year, $32.5 million contract, re-signed a rejuvenated Jake Peavy and brought in Jeff Keppinger to help boost a league-worst .221 average in the No. 2 hole.
One trouble spot in the lineup was caused by letting catcher A.J. Pierzynski leave for Texas through free agency. Tyler Flowers is ready behind the plate but he’s going to need to help make up for the loss of 27 homers by Pierzynski.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Trading away their top prospect, outfielder Wil Myers, for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis was a big gamble for the Royals to make. But along with Ervin Santana, the three are being counted on to turn around the Royals biggest problem area: starting pitching.
If Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Jeff Francoeur can rebound at the plate, then the Royals could surprise some people and end streak of nine straight losing seasons.
The Indians spent money this winter, all right. Will it help? Hard to say.
No matter how many runs Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Drew Stubbs and Mark Reynolds produce for new manager Terry Francona, the starting rotation is still a glaring problem. Ubaldo Jimenez, the centerpiece of a trade-deadline deal in July 2011, led the league in losses last year and has struggled this spring, and newcomer Scott Kazmir was pitching in an independent league last year.
Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau appear to be at full health, but the Twins appear headed for a third straight last-place finish in the Central because their rotation is such a question mark with newcomer Mike Pelfrey coming off Tommy John surgery, Scott Diamond still rehabbing after minor arm surgery and Kevin Correia getting hit hard this spring.
GM Terry Ryan traded Denard Span and Ben Revere for prospects and the Twins’ farm system is flush, but help is still a year or two away.
After an embarrassing collapse in the final week of the season and a loss in the wild-card game, the Rangers then irked some fans. They didn’t open their wallet to keep Hamilton or Mike Napoli and traded the team’s career hits leader, Young, to the Phillies.
There’s no panic in Texas, though, and rightly so. The Rangers’ lineup is still formidable, with MVP candidate Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz. The feisty Pierzynski hit a career-high 27 homers for the White Sox last season and could approach that number again in Texas’ homey ballpark. And, the club has the top young position player in the minors ready to break into the lineup, former Spokane Indian infielder Jurickson Profar.
Texas might not be able to match the Angels run for run, but it will outpitch Los Angeles. Harrison and Darvish, with 16 wins as a major league rookie last year, lead a deep rotation. Joe Nathan returned to form as the closer.
LOS ANGELES ANGELS
Fans will be sticking to their seats when the hitters are taking their hacks, but when Weaver’s not on the mound the concession lines could get a little long.
Weaver’s an ace and C.J. Wilson can be a formidable No. 2, although he had an up-and-down first season in California. After that, who knows? The Angels brought in Jason Vargas, Joe Blanton and Tommy Hanson to fill out their rotation. The three went a combined 37-34 last year and Vargas was the only one to have an ERA under 4.00. The bullpen doesn’t offer much more confidence. Ryan Madson was signed away from Cincinnati to be the closer, but he’s coming off Tommy John surgery and was recently shut down for a stretch because of elbow tightness.
The A’s rode a young pitching staff — five rookies at times after Bartolo Colon was suspended for 50 games for a drug violation — and the surprising performances by players such as Brandon Moss and Josh Donaldson to the West title.
Can they repeat the magic that produced a majors-best 14 walkoff wins when Moss likely slugs at a percentage closer to his career average of .442 rather than the .596? Cespedes appears ready to be a breakout star and his production will be key. Jed Lowrie’s addition should help perk up the middle infield.
For Oakland to pull off another stunner in this division, it’s going to need ace-in-the-making Brett Anderson to remain healthy and the veteran Colon to help bolster the young staff.
Step one in the Mariners’ long-term health is taken care of: they locked up 2010 Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez with a $175 million, seven-year contract. Now, they need everything else to follow.
Seattle improved one of baseball’s worst offenses by bringing in Kendrys Morales, Michael Morse, Jason Bay and Raul Ibanez. The Mariners really are hoping Jesus Montero lives up to the potential he showed as a late-season callup with the Yankees in 2011 — and led them to trade top young pitcher Michael Pineda to New York for the catcher-designated hitter.
The addition of the Astros in the West should help their record some, but Seattle could be in for another dreary summer.
The inexperienced, overmatched Astros are going to be fodder for the big bats at the top of the division. Still, GM Jeff Luhnow has the team headed in a better direction with an improved farm system that should yield results in a couple of years.
This season, though, Houston could become the first team since the New York Mets from 1962-65 to lose at least 100 games for three straight years.
When new manager Bo Porter makes out his lineup every day, Jose Altuve might be the only name fans recognize. Bud Norris is the highest-paid player on the team at $3 million.
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