On Sunday night the 2009 Major League Baseball season officially begins, in the ballpark where the 2008 season ended. But I'll discuss the defending World Series Champions later. For now, let's look at the American League. I make no promises about the quality or accuracy of these predictions.
1. Tampa Bay Rays: I assume the defending AL champs will get increased interest from, shall we say, the typical Outsports reader after signing free agents Pat Burrell and Gabe Kapler...but the Rays made some bullpen additions as well and have strong starting pitching even with phenom David Price starting the year in triple-A. If new DH Burrell can provide consistent production, a great team could get even better.
2. Boston Red Sox: They finally rid themselves of the Manny-being-Manny drama, but they've also rid themselves of his offensive production. They survived the last two months of 2008 and nearly won the AL pennant, but while their pitching remains formidable, will the Ramirez-less offense produce enough over an entire season?
3. New York Yankees: The CC Sabathia, Mark Teixiera and A. J. Burnett signings will cost the team ginormous dollars but this is one team that can afford them, especially with the new, luxury suite-enhanced Yankee Stadium set to debut. But they still rely on aging vets like Damon, Jeter, Posada and Rivera. The new big names are going to have to carry the team while withstanding the New York pressure and avoiding whatever drama swirls around A-Rod when he returns from hip surgery.
4. Toronto Blue Jays: Losing Burnett to the Yankees makes the Jays' starting rotation even more dependent on Roy Halladay. With no significant additions, this is a team that is at best treading water. At least they won't finish last, though, because of the...
5. Baltimore Orioles: All you need to know about how bad this team could be is that as of this writing Adam Eaton still has a chance to be in their rotation. But the O's still have Camden Yards, which set the standard for every new ballpark opened since. And they have Melvin Mora, whose wife gave birth to quintuplets in 2001, long before "Jon and Kate Plus Eight" and "Octomom" made a mockery of large families.
1. Minnesota Twins: The Twins missed the playoffs by one game and added free agent Joe Crede to play third. Joe Mauer has been out with a back problem and isn't likely to start the season, but if he returns quickly enough they should be able to get over the hump this year.
2. Cleveland Indians: The Tribe fell from their 2007 heights in part due to injuries, and traded Sabathia to Milwaukee rather than lose him to free agency. They finished at .500 thanks to a late-season surge, signed Kerry Wood as their closer and are taking a chance on oft-injured Yankee bust Carl Pavano. To return to the top Cleveland needs good health and something close to his 2008 performance from reigning AL Cy Young winner Cliff Lee.
3. Chicago White Sox: After winning the division last year their offseason moves were more subtractions than additions, as they're relying on young players in the infield and are hoping Bartolo Colon can fill the shoes of the traded Javier Vazquez in the rotation.
4. Detroit Tigers: The Tigers should score runs but can they stop the other team from scoring? One of their starters, Jeremy Bonderman, will start the year on the disabled list with a sore shoulder. High-priced acquisition Dontrelle Willis is also on the DL -- due to an anxiety disorder. I'm gonna guess the answer to that question will be "no" more often than not.
5. Kansas City Royals: They haven't sniffed the playoffs since winning the World Series in 1985, haven't even finished second since 1995 (and that year they still finished 30 games behind Cleveland), and haven't had a winning season since 2003. With their small-market status, breaking that last streak may be the only attainable goal.
1. Los Angeles Angels: After winning 100 games but being ousted in the AL Division Series by Boston, the Angels reloaded by...losing closer Francisco Rodriguez, starter Jon Garland, longtime Angel Garret Anderson and slugger Mark Teixiera in free agency. But hey, they added Bobby Abreu cheap! Still, they have enough to win this division.
2. Oakland Athletics: Matt Holliday, acquired in a trade with Colorado, will be interesting to watch. Will his numbers in the cavernous Coliseum come close to what he did in more hitter-friendly Coors Field? And how will that affect his free agency after 2009? The pitching staff, particularly the rotation, is young. This is a team that has potential, but probably not enough to make the postseason this year.
3. Seattle Mariners: Big things were expected from Seattle in 2008. They ended up losing 101 games, a manager, a hitting coach and a GM. In the offseason, after a roster overhaul and the hiring of new manager Don Wakamatsu, the first Asian-American manager in MLB history, they introduced a new slogan for 2009: "A New Day, A New Way." They then demonstrated their commitment to newness by signing former Mariner Ken Griffey Jr., who is Junior in name only now.
4. Texas Rangers: Not much happened during the offseason so, as always, the Rangers' pitching will likely be their biggest weakness. Michael Young is moving from shortstop to third base, the same move former Ranger shortstop Alex Rodriguez made. Let's hope Young doesn't start taking steroids or hooking up with Madonna.