The off-season trades that brought pitchers R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle to Toronto along with shortstop Jose Reyes, plus the free-agent signings of Melky Cabrera and Maicer Izturis, signaled a change in thinking among the Blue Jays' ownership and management groups.
Their actions, sacrificing a chunk of the club’s minor league system, suggested to fans that the time to win is now.
On April 2, all the talk of contending for a playoff spot — Toronto hasn’t played in the post-season since 1993 — and World Series will be pushed aside and the attention placed back on the field, with the Blue Jays hosting Cleveland in the season opener for both teams.
Does Toronto possess the ingredients to overcome the challenges of Tampa Bay’s starting pitchers and keep an aging and hurting group of New York Yankees lower in the East standings?
Which teams will reign supreme across the league in 2013? Which of the AL’s other 14 clubs are poised to take the next step or falter this season?
It’s all here as CBCSports.ca projects the AL division winners along with three teams on the rise and decline.
East: Toronto — The Blue Jays are in good shape if pitching and defence are the deciding factors in a majority of their games. With reigning National League Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey (20 wins, 230 strikeouts) as their ace and fellow newcomers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle to go with returnee Brandon Morrow (2.96 ERA in 21 starts), the Jays boast one of the top starting staffs in the AL.
Defensively, they have upgraded at second base (Maicer Izturis) and left field (Melky Cabrera). The time is now for Toronto to pounce on an aging and ailing New York Yankees team and Boston, which is full of question marks, with Tampa Bay proving to be the Jays’ most formidable foe. Expect Toronto to win 88-93 games.
Central: Detroit — The Tigers return virtually the same lineup that appeared in the World Series last fall, save for a couple of notable additions. Victor Martinez isn’t a newcomer but the career .300 hitter missed all of 2012 with a torn knee ligament. The former catcher will be the full-time designated hitter this season. Detroit signed veteran outfielder Torii Hunter (career-high .313 last season with 92 RBIs) to play right field and hit in front of Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Martinez in the batting order.
The starting pitching rotation of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello (zero walks in 24 innings at spring training) might be the best in the league, and all of baseball. Now, if they could only settle on a closer. Expect 90-plus wins.
West: Texas — We’re picking the Rangers to win the division with 90 victories but it’ll be a close finish with the Los Angeles Angels and Oakland. Texas could be hard-pressed to match last season’s 93-win total with Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, Mike Napoli, Mike Adams and Ryan Dempster playing elsewhere. A healthy season from new designated hitter Lance Berkman (.301, 31 homers in 2011) and a repeat of catcher A.J. Pierzynski’s statistics last season with the Chicago White Sox (.278, career-high 27 homers) would help.
Pitching-wise, Yu Darvish (16 wins, 221 strikeouts in 29 starts) might win the Cy Young Award and Matt Harrison is solid, but the jury is still out on Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando and rookie No. 5 man Nick Tepesch.
ON THE RISE
Kansas City — Royals GM Dayton Moore addressed a need for a frontline starter, sacrificing some of the future by trading outfield prospect Wil Myers and young pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery for James Shields and Wade Davis, formerly of Tampa Bay. Shields is a workhorse (15 wins, 227 2/3 innings in 2012) and Davis has upside. Moore also traded for Ervin Santana (5.16 ERA in ’12) with Jeremy Guthrie and Bruce Chen rounding out an improved rotation.
The bullpen, led by closer Greg Holland and set-up man Kelvin Herrera, is among the best in baseball, while the offence should only get better with up-and-comers Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez complementing proven talents Billy Butler (.313, 29 HRs) and Alex Gordon (.294, .368 on-base percentage).
Seattle — Don’t bet on the Mariners finishing last in the league for a fourth straight season after GM Jack Zduriencik added sluggers Mike Morse and Kendrys Morales in the off-season along with 40-year-old DH Raul Ibanez. The fences at Safeco Field also are being brought in anywhere from four to as much as 17 feet. Right-fielder Michael Saunders of Victoria will look to build on a breakout season in 2012 (19 HRs, 21 stolen bases) and strong showing at the World Baseball Classic, where he was named MVP of Round 1.
Starting pitching is decent with ace Felix Hernandez, relatively unknown No. 2 man Hisashi Iwakuma (nine wins, 3.16 ERA in 30 games, 16 starts) and free-agent signing Joe Saunders.
Toronto — In six months, Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos has turned the team from a flawed, 89-loss outfit to World Series contender. Besides the new-look starting rotation (see above), he addressed bullpen needs by exercising 42-year-old Darren Oliver’s contract option and adding relatively unknown Esmil Rogers (3.06 ERA, 1.11 WHIP in 44 games with Cleveland) to go with closer candidates Casey Janssen and Sergio Santos along with Steve Delabar and Aaron Loup.
Four-time all-star shortstop Jose Reyes (.287, 40 stolen bases in ’12) and Melky Cabrera gives Toronto an exciting 1-2 punch at the top of the batting order not seen in years. The Jays’ bench is also solid, consistent of Emilio Bonifacio, Rajai Davis, Mark DeRosa and Moises Sierra.
ON THE DECLINE
Baltimore — It’s hard to imagine the Orioles winning 93 games again in 2012 including 29 by one run. It's equally doubtful the collection of unproven starting pitchers (Wei-Yin Chen/Miguel Gonzalez/Chris Tillman) will have career seasons for a second straight year or perform above expectations, so some regression is probable.
Baltimore should hit, with Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Chris Davis and Nick Markakis in the middle of the lineup, but there are also questions at second base (Brian Roberts) and left field (Nolan Reimold/Nate McLouth) but manager Buck Showalter managed to coax 93 wins and a playoff berth from a club many expected to finish last in the East a year ago.
Houston — Yes, the Astros have been on the decline for a few years but a 107-loss season in 2012 could approach 110 this season for the AL West newcomers. There is little to get excited about here, save for 22-year-old second baseman Jose Altuve (33 steals, .340 on-base percentage in 2012). First baseman Carlos Pena and closer Jose Veras were added in the off-season but could be flipped for long-term pieces, while starting pitchers Lucas Harrell and Bud Norris are already drawing interest on the trade market.
At least Canadian fans will have a chance to cheer on left-hander Erik Bedard, who has made the team as its fifth starter. The oft-injured 34-year-old went 7-14 with a 5.01 earned-run average in 24 starts with Pittsburgh in 2012.
New York — We’re not predicting a 19th AL East title for the Yankees, who limp into the 2013 campaign. First baseman Mark Teixeira (wrist) and centre-fielder Curtis Granderson (broken forearm) aren’t expected in the lineup until at least May while third baseman Alex Rodriguez (hip surgery) might return by midseason. Shortstop Derek Jeter also is likely to open the season on the disabled list after experiencing soreness in his surgically repaired left ankle.
The departure of Montreal’s Russell Martin leaves catching duties to Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli, neither of whom has played 100 games in a season. Free-agent signings Kevin Youkilis (third base) and Travis Hafner (DH) along with newly acquired Vernon Wells are past their best-before dates. But the bullpen, led by healthy closer Mariano Rivera and set-up man David Robertson, is among the best in the league, just not enough to hold off Toronto and Tampa Bay in the East.