By Evan Roberts
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1. Texas Rangers
That’s right, the Rangers! Everywhere you look you’ll see the Phillies, Yankees and even Angels as the favorites to win it all, but why not the two-time defending American League champions?
Their offense will be stellar as always, but the major question about getting back to the World Series will be centered around Neftali Feliz. Feliz, who we will remember struggling to get that 27th out for the Rangers, is now a starter…for now. Joe Nathan is being asked to bounce back from major surgery as the closer, and Yu Darvish, who has all the hype, is being asked to replace CJ Wilson.
They won’t get back to the Classic, but based on their accomplishments of the last two years — and how painful it ended in 2011 — the Rangers at least deserve the inaugural No. 1 spot.
2. New York Yankees
Here is what we definitely know about the Yankees: They will score a ton of runs, CC Sabathia will get Cy Young consideration and, even at age 85, Mariano Rivera will be the best closer in baseball.
Even with the bad news about Michael Pineda, there aren’t many rotations with as much depth as the Yankees. I’m not sure if Ivan Nova can reproduce what he did last year, but I firmly believe Phil Hughes will resemble his 2010 self more so than 2011.
3. Philadelphia Phillies
When this run began the Phillies were all offense with mediocre pitching… it has now gone completely full circle.
Doc, Lee and Hamels lead arguably the best top three in baseball, but will they get enough run support? No Ryan Howard and no Chase Utley early. And Raul Ibanez, despite his mediocre season, has taken his 20-plus home runs to the Bronx. Can Hunter Pence and Jimmy Rollins carry this lineup til the big guys return? They certainly improved the pen by bringing in the battle-tested Jonathan Papelbon.
4. Angels of Anaheim
Well, they certainly won the offseason by signing the best hitter on the planet and one of the best pitchers on the market. They now have themselves a formidable lineup to go long with a really good staff.
Weaver/Wilson/Santana/Haren can match up with anybody. But for them to overtake Texas they will need Torri Hunter and Vernon Wells to at least be halfway as decent as they were in their prime. Expect to see super prospect Mike Trout in the majors by July.
5. Detroit Tigers
Unlike every other team mentioned, it appears the Tigers won’t even be tested in their own division. I know it’s baseball and anything can happen, but seriously, what AL Central team can even put a slight scare into Detroit? Kansas City? Minnesota? Cleveland?
The bottom line is this: The Tigers should waltz to another division championship. I don’t think Justin Verlander will have the same type of MVP season, but he won’t need to. The lineup is better with the addition of Prince Fielder and I don’t think Miguel Cabrera will have too much trouble moving back to 3B.
6. Tampa Bay Rays
The small market Rays have made the postseason in three out of the last four seasons, including two division titles. Every year the same questions exist. Can they score enough runs? Is their bullpen any good? Is the young pitching as good as advertised? Every single year the answers turn out to be “Yes.”
The TB pitching is scary good, especially when you factor in that David Price should be better and Matt Moore is just getting started. I think Tampa Bay is closer to the Yankees than Boston is to Tampa Bay.
7. Cincinnati Reds
The Reds had a breakout season in 2010 before taking a step back last year. I fully expect them to closely resemble the 2010 team.
They can score a ton of runs and they bring in a potential ace in Mat Latos. They gave up a lot to get him, but besides giving Dusty Baker another arm to ruin (just kidding, or am I?) Latos gives them a guy who can be their ace and lead them into October. The closer situation is now murky due to the injury to Ryan Madson, but eventually it will be Aroldis Chapman’s job and I think he will do it well.
8. Miami Marlins
I don’t love the Marlins as much as others, and I think they have great potential to be an absolute catastrophe.
Ozzie Guillen+Wacky Owner+Carlos Zambrano+Hanley not being thrilled+Jose Reyes’ hamstrings could very well = disaster in Miami. BUT I have to give them credit. They signed Reyes, which creates a potential pain-in-the-rear-end top of the order of Reyes/Bonifacio, and they stabilized the staff behind Josh Johnson by signing Mark Buehrle.
9. Boston Red Sox
Yes, the Sox are low down on this list. But can you really blame me?
They had an all-time choke in 2011, brought in a manager that could work wonders or be a disaster, and have major pitching issues in the best division in baseball. To me, Jon Lester is the only sure thing in that rotation. Beckett always seems to have something physically wrong with him, Clay Buchholz is coming off a lost year (though I do expect him to bounce back) and the 4-5 is Felix Doubront and converted reliever Daniel Bard. Plus, will this locker room mesh well with Bobby Valentine?
I think the Sox miss the playoffs for the third straight year.
10. Atlanta Braves
Only fitting that I put the two teams that made 2011 the year of the meltdown back to back. I think the Braves will be a fourth place team in the NL East, but based on the last two years, in fairness, they do deserve a spot in the top 10… for now.
The Braves will rely on the answers to two key questions. 1. Can Venters/Kimbrel and O’Flaherty be as good as they were last year (which was the Braves strength)? And 2. Can the young arms fortify this rotation?
How would you rank ‘em? Make your case in the comments below…