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East Carolina Hall of Famer and
former baseball coach Keith LeClair.
 (Photo: ECU Media Relations)

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From The Dugout

By Keith LeClair

American League Preview

Last week I had a little fun talking about the off-season winners and losers, but this week it's time to get down to business and make some bold predictions.  I will start with the American League, and next week I will highlight the National League.

I will do each division in the order that I feel they will finish.  Warning: these predictions are only guaranteed if the teams finish in the correct order, which is highly unlikely.

AL Central

1.   Kansas city:  The weakest division in all of baseball will give any one of these teams a chance to win the Central.  But I just think KC, with the additions of Benito Santiago and Juan Gonzalez in the off-season gives them the best chance to win this division.  The presence of Santiago behind the plate will definitely benefit this young pitching staff.  Look for rookie Zane Greinke at some point this season to step in and win some games.  He has a power arm and is Kansas City's top prospect.

The big question mark will be the bullpen, where last year the Royals blew 28 out of 64 save opportunities.  That's right, you read it correctly.  If Tony Pena can find someone to step up and fill this role, their chances of winning the division will dramatically increase.

2.   Minnesota Twins:  Minnesota got hit hard in this off-season, losing the majority of its bullpen in closer Eddie Guardado to Seattle and Latroy Hawkins to the Cubs.  Plus, Erik Milton, who was injured most of last year but is a promising LHP who could have helped bolster their starting rotation.  Not to forget, they also lost all-star catcher AJ Pierzynski, who was traded to the Giants.  With all that said, the Twins play the game hard and still have plenty of talented offensive players who can play superb defense.  If they can pitch and fill some holes in their staff, expect Minnesota to give the Royals a run for their money.

3.   Detroit Tigers:  You can call me crazy if you like, but I just have a gut feeling this team is going to surprise a lot of folks.  I like what they did in the off-season in acquiring some quality veterans in Ivan Rodriguez, Rondell White, Fernando Vina and Carlos Guillen.  This team has drastically improved itself up the middle and should give a young pitching staff a boost in the arm.  If Detroit can find a way to score some runs and get some offensive production out of Carlos Pena, I believe the Tigers will be in the Central chase.

4.   Chicago White Sox:  New manager, new year, but I am afraid to say the results will be the same.  No question, Chicago has a potent offense, but I believe its ballpark really hurts the core strength of its lineup.  It is big and plays especially big in the first few months of the season, when it is bitterly cold in Chicago.

On top of all this don't, expect their best player — Maglio Ordonez — to be around all year, especially if the Sox get off to a slow start.  In fact, Maglio was going to be traded for Nomar Garciaparra in the A-Rod deal, but that fell through and the deal was dead.  The pitching staff is a question mark, especially with the departure of Bartolo Colon to the Angels.  I really think this will be the year the White Sox clean house and start over.  I am sorry White Sox fans, but their is only one team in Chicago, and that's the Cubs.

5.   Cleveland Indians:  I have some good and bad news if you're an Indians fan.  The good news is this young team is about a year away from making a run at the playoffs.  The bad news is you gotta wait one more year for these guys to develop. This is a very talented group that could, if all things clicked, make a run at the Central Division this year, but I wouldn't bank on it.  Sorry Dr. Figler, who is my great doctor and a huge Indians fan, it will be one more year of good ballpark franks and cold beer, but that will be about all your excitement this summer at the Jacobs Field.

AL West

1.   Anaheim Angels:  This league is always a dogfight with Oakland, Seattle and Anaheim, and don't expect much to change this season, but with the off-season Anaheim put together, they are my favorites to win the West.  When you can claim the likes of Vladimir Guerrero, Kelvin Escobar and Bartolo Colon, one would say they like their chances of winning.

Coming off a disappointing season following the World Series championship, these acquisitions may be just what the doctor needed — or at least the best money can buy.  This is an extremely talented group that very well could be back in the World Series this year.  However, it will be interesting to see how Guererro handles the pressure of playing for a team with the expectations to win.  I think it will be important to get off to a good start and take advantage of being in a new league where guys have frequently faced him.  The Angels are no longer the underdog overachievers, but rather a high-salary, hunted team, just like the Yankees and Red Sox.  It will be a lot of fun to see how they handle the pressure.

2.   Oakland Athletics:  If Anaheim falters in the least, you can bank on Oakland being right there to win another division title.  They have perhaps the best rotation in the league with Zito, Mulder and Judson, not to mention Mark Redman, acquired from the Marlins, and rookie phenom Chad Harville.  The question will be if rookie Bubba Crosby can replace Miguel Tejada at shortstop and who will replace reliable closer Keith Foulke, who took his services to Boston.

This is a big transition year for the A's and a lot of pressure will be on multi-millionaire-dollar man Eric Chavez to have a career year.  I have a hard time going against this organization, because it seems to reload every year, thanks to the best GM in the business, Billy Bean.  Anaheim has a little too much fire power from the right side of their offense to offset the left-handed pitching of Oakland, that's why the Angels are my pick.

3.   Texas Rangers:  Texas is on the way up with a boatload of young offensive talent, and if it can pitch just respectably, don't be shocked if the Rangers keep themselves in the division race for awhile.  Notice, I didn't say how long.

I like Alphonso Soriano and he very well may end up the American League MVP before the season is over.  He has a lot to prove, and with the trade of Alex Rodriguez, I really think a lot of pressure was lifted from this team.  Third place is not out of the question and just like the Indians, Texas could be rising to the front of the pack quickly.

4.   Seattle Mariners:  The roof may begin to crash down on this organization, especially if the Mariners go trade for Ken Griffey Jr.  They are getting older offensively with John Olerud and Edgar Martinez in the middle of their order, although they did go out and sign Raul Ibanez, Scott Speizio and Rich Aurilia, to hopefully add some offensive punch.  But will they be enough, or are those additions going to be average in a division that has some offensive firepower?  Granted, Ichiro Suzuki may be the best pure hitter in the game today, but he alone won't make for a productive offense with the ability to score runs when needed.

Seattle also has some question marks within its pitching staff.  Freddie Garcia has to rebound from a sub-par year and the Mariners have to get some other youngsters to step up around Jamie Moyer, who is coming off a career year.  They lost their Japan closer — who turned down a nine-million dollar contract to return home — so, the Mariners went out and signed Gddie Guardado from the Twins, who is a proven closer.  With all this said, I think the Mariners will struggle this year and have to fight to stay out of the cellar with Texas.

AL East

Without a doubt, this is the toughest division in the American League and will most likely produce the Wild Card winner as well.  This is a challenge trying to pick a winner between the Yanks and Boston.  I know what my heart says, but my gut speaks something different.  OK, I may lose all my friends over this one, but its time to make my pick.

1.   New York Yankees:  Why this pick?  I just think the Yankees have a little more firepower, both on the mound and at the plate.  Do you think I am crazy?  April Fools.

1.   Boston Red Sox:  They have a closer and two proven number-one guys in their rotation, with Schilling and Martinez.  Foulke will be the key this year in finally bringing stability to the bullpen and allowing the other guys to fit into their roles.  Closer by committee has never worked and never will, because guys simply can't prepare mentally or physically for that role — case closed with Keith Foulke.

On offense, the Red Sox bring everyone back except Todd Walker, who will be replaced by Pokey Reese, perhaps the best defensive second baseman in the game.  We know that Boston and the Yankees have the two best offenses in the league and it will be a battle when these two teams meet.  Boston has made the necessary changes this off-season to finally bring home a divisional title.  Sorry Yanks, it's wild card time for you this year.

2.   New York Yankees:  Boy, it felt good to write that.  The Yanks will finish second for two reasons: Kevin Brown won't stay healthy for a whole season and Gary Sheffield is already being bothered with a sore thumb that will only get worse.  You can't replace Pettite, Clemens and Wells in just one year, I don't care who you bring in.  Too many changes at one time could cause some chemistry problems, especially if the Yankees get off to a slow start.  It will be fun to see how A-Rod handles his first slump and gets booed by the toughest fans in the game.

With a team payroll of $200 million, the stadium parking lot should be loaded with some nice wheels.  Let's see how George handles second place and how long he goes before firing the best manager in the game, Joe Torree.

3.   Toronto Blue Jays:  The dark horse to make some noise if Boston and New York develop a lot of key injuries over the season.  If those teams slip, Toronto will be right there to capitalize and make a move, if not to win the division or at least a shot in the wild card race.  Toronto has a Cy Young guy in Roy Halladay to build a staff around and went out this off-season and got Ted Lilly from Oakland and Miguel Batista to help solidify its starting rotation.  The bullpen still has some question marks, even though the Jays signed some veteran guys in Kerry Lightenburg, Justin Speier and Terry Adams, in hopes of bolstering a suspect pen.

The Blue Jays do have superstars in Carlos Delgado and Vernon Wells, but these two guys will have to put up stellar seasons if Toronto expects to make a run at Boston and New York.  Toronto is a good club that is in just too good of a division to win right now.  Maybe in a couple of years that will change.

4.   Baltimore Orioles:  A lot of off-season money spent on Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez, Sidney Ponson and Rafael Palmiero, but unfortunately the pitching will just not be good enough for Baltimore to stay competitive this year. You should see some improvements on the offensive side, but how much is yet to be determined.  Lopez is coming off a career year, which scares me, especially coming over to a new league, and Tejada I still am not sold on as a superstar that can help turn around a franchise.  I don't consider him in the class of A-Rod, Jeter and a Nomar, but he certainly is better than anything Baltimore has had at short since Cal Ripken at least.

Just my opinion, but I think Baltimore spent more money on guys that they will get in return.  It really hurt when Vladimir Guerrero signed with Anaheim, and I question why they did not go after Ivan Rodriguez instead of Javy Lopez.  I thought both of those guys really could have helped the O's, but only time will tell.

5.   Tampa Bay Devil Rays:  They may be last this year, but that is going to change in the near future.  They are loading up on young talent that is developing quick.  They could push Baltimore for fourth place, which would be a major accomplishment for this young club.

Wild Card:   New York Yankees.

Bracket King: There you have it for the American League picks and now here comes my NCAA basketball pick.  I would mention that I picked Syracuse last year.  So you can write this one down:  Duke will win it all.

Chad Tracy Update: 14 games, 34  AB's, 14hits, 1 double 4rbi's and .382 average
playing left, right, first and third.  He had the game winning RBI against the Padres in the tenth inning with two outs.

If you have a question or comment about the Pirates in particular or baseball in general, fire your best pitch at Ol' Condo: Sound off to Coach LeClair...

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02.23.07 10:27 AM


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