Baseball picksApril 1, 2006

2006 MLB Preview – American League


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By Issac Miller

It was an interesting offseason in the American League. The Blue Jays made some noise by signing pitchers A.J. Burnett and B.J Ryan. The Red Sox added Coco Crisp and Josh Beckett. In the West, the A’s acquired Milton Bradley to help the offense and the Rangers signed Kevin Millwood to help their pitching.

Some burning questions still remain. Who will be this year’s Chicago White Sox? Will the Yankees regain their position on top of the American League?

To obtain a clear picture of the 2006 landscape, the success of the 2005 White Sox must be looked at. The New York Yankees should be checked out, as well, because they are always the team to beat in the AL. There is talent in every division, but in the end, the strongest team will be out West.

It seems that there is a team every year that overachieves for a while, only to lose to a hotter team in October. In 2005, the White Sox looked like another mediocre AL Central team reminiscent of the 2002-2004 Minnesota Twins. They appeared to have peaked too early, winning 57 games by the All-Star Break. Guys like Scott Podsednik and Jon Garland played outside of their minds in the first half. By the Midsummer Classic, Podsednik had stolen a ridiculous 44 bases and Garland had already won 14 games. Garland did not even start the All-Star Game; his teammate, Mark Buehrle, did.

Chicago slowed down, however, posting a 26-28 record from August 1st-September 27th. All signs pointed to a disappointing October. Chicago turned things around nicely, however, and started rolling. The White Sox went 16-1 after September 27th, including 11-1 in the playoffs. They were the hottest team in October, and maybe they were actually as good as their 99 wins would suggest.

As a Red Sox fan, I recall being thrilled when Boston got matched-up against the White Sox instead of the Angels in the first round of the playoffs. I thought the Red Sox would easily get to the ALCS. A lack of star power and household names made Chicago look beatable. Throw in a mediocre record after the All-Star Break, a terrible division, and 88 years of history and suddenly the team with the best record in the American League is an underdog. The Red Sox took Ozzie Guillen’s club for granted and received a three-game wildcard beat-down. The Angels and Astros never stood a chance.

So, looking to the upcoming 2006 season, it seems unlikely that the White Sox will win it all again. The 2005 Sox will be in contention for the AL Central crown, but will likely come up short. Chicago will not be able to duplicate the magic of 2005 without repeat performances from Garland and Podsednik, among others.

So, if not them, who? The favorite to win the 2006 World Series (based on several online sportsbooks) is the New York Yankees. The Bronx Bombers have the best team on paper, but that is nothing new. Joe Torre has no shortage of talent, and the Yanks will be in the middle of it for sure. Nevertheless, the Yankees have not won a title since owner George Steinbrenner went insane and starting stockpiling talent. There’s a big difference between the 2005 Chicago White Sox and the 2002-2006 New York Yankees.

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In 2000, the Yankees beat the New York Mets in five games to win their 26th world championship and their fourth in five years. Winning titles takes role players, defense, and chemistry. The Yankees had that down to a science from 1996-2000. Since then, the team has been completely rebuilt, replacing the likes of Scott Brosius and Andy Pettitte. Steinbrenner has acquired Jason Giambi, Mike Mussina, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui, Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano, and Johnny Damon. Some big names have even come and gone like Javier Vazquez and Jose Contreras. Despite those additions, a 27th championship ring eludes Mr. Steinbrenner. Simply hoarding big-name players does not guarantee titles.

So five years without a ring and payroll and expectations are skyrocketing for the guys in pinstripes. That being said, the 2006 squad looks like a legitimate contender. GM Brian Cashman revamped the bullpen by adding Kyle Farnsworth and Octavio Dotel. The Yankees have a monster lineup, a solid bullpen, and, barring injuries, an adequate starting rotation. Johnny Damon, signed via free agency, adds defensive help in centerfield, which was a major problem in 2005. Also, look for Robinson Cano to improve from an impressive rookie campaign in which he had 155 hits in 132 games. Overall, the Yanks look better than they did a year ago.

With all the stars in pinstripes, it’s hard to pick against them. The problem is that there is always a hotter team in October. New York was eliminated before getting to play last year’s hottest club, the White Sox, but from 2001-2004, the Yanks lost to the eventual champs each year. The Yankees will always be there in October, but it’s hard to compete in the postseason with inferior pitching, no matter how good you’re hitting is. The Bombers eventually succumb to quality pitching and defense.

For 2006, the starters must be consistent for New York to win it all. That means that Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina need to intimidate and frighten opponents. Neither did that last year. Both were way too vulnerable. If they don’t perform, New York will have another painful October.

Ultimately, the Yankees will win the AL East. New York will easily get to 96 or 97 wins with that $200 million roster and with some luck, that number could end up as high as 100 or 101. Boston will be right behind them in the area of 95 wins, depending on the performances of Keith Foulke and Curt Schilling. It will be interesting to see if the Red Sox gel with all the new additions.

The x-factor in the AL East will be the Toronto Blue Jays. The Jays will not make the playoffs, but they will determine the wildcard team. If Toronto wins between 85 and 87 games, the Red Sox win total will go down to around 90. This will open the door for the White Sox, Angels, or Rangers to make the playoffs as the wildcard team. The new additions to the Jays squad, along with regulars like Vernon Wells and Roy Halladay, make them dangerous to the teams in the AL East, which have to play Toronto just under 20 times each.

In the AL Central, look for the Cleveland Indians to pick up where they left off at the end of the 2005 season. Cleveland went 19-8 in September a season ago, 93-69 overall, and should take advantage of a poor division. Cleveland gets 55 games in 2006 against Minnesota, Detroit, and Kansas City. The Indians also have an easy interleague schedule, playing nine games against the Reds, Cubs, and Brewers.

Cleveland will cruise to over 90 wins en route to an AL Central title. Look for the Tribe to finish with around 94 or 95 wins, possibly as many as 97 or 98.

The AL West will be interesting in ’06, as well. The Texas Rangers have a monster lineup full of young stars. They should win a lot of games if the pitching can improve even slightly from last year. Texas ranked 26th in team ERA a season ago, prompting them to sign pitcher Kevin Millwood, who led all AL pitchers in ERA last year. The overall pitching staff is still suspect, though, and middle relief will be a major problem in 2006. Look for this club to make a serious wildcard push while winning 85 or 86 games.

Oakland always hangs around with fantastic pitching and timely hitting. Oakland will win this division in 2006 with four nasty starting pitchers. Rich Harden will win 20 games if he’s healthy. Dan Haren will improve from a 14 win 2005 season. Barry Zito is a former Cy Young award winner and newcomer Esteban Loaiza is a crafty veteran who will settle into his role nicely in Oakland. There could be 60 wins in these four guys. Reigning AL Rookie of the Year Huston Street anchors the bullpen and could be an all-star this year.

Oakland also added Frank Thomas and Milton Bradley to help Eric Chavez and Bobby Kielty on offense. The A’s will be too much for a strong Anaheim club. Oakland wins 94 or 95 games behind the best pitching staff in the American League. Anaheim will win between 86 and 88 games competing heavily for a wildcard berth, and second place in the division, with Texas.

2006 should be an entertaining year in the AL. Texas and Toronto bulked up in an effort to finish better than third in their respective divisions. Both will contribute greatly to the overall playoff picture. When the smoke clears, however, the division champs will be New York, Cleveland, and Oakland. The wildcard representative will be Boston.

New York will beat Cleveland and meet Oakland in the ALCS. It will be the best lineup in baseball against the best pitching in baseball. Oakland wins in seven games with Harden throwing the game of his life in Yankee Stadium to win Game 7. A-Rod will bat .150 in the series.

The fact is that without a salary cap in the majors, New York is allowed to spend over $200 million. This results in regular season wins, maybe over 100 in ’06.

There are more than 10 former all-stars on the Yanks and at least four future Hall of Fame inductees. But think of them like the 1980 Russian Olympic Hockey team. The U.S. team was overmatched, but won because they had more motivation and just wanted it more. Chicago wanted it more last year. Look for Oakland to be the team in 2006 that wants it more than the Yankees in the American League.

2006 MLB Preview
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