A.L. preview: Parity is the name of the game

A.L. preview: Parity is the name of the game
March 25, 2014, 3:45 pm
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Thanks to the changes in the playoff format last year, teams don't just compete against others in their own division. With two wild-card spots available in each league, it may be necessary to finish with a better record than a team in, say, the A.L. West to qualify for October baseball.
Parity across the game is greater than any time in recent memory. Here's a look at some teams the Red Sox may have to be wary of in the A.L. Central and West divisions.

Optimistic look: Miguel Cabrera is healthy again, which gives the Tigers the game's best hitter in the middle of the lineup on a daily basis. The Big Three of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez is the envy of virtually every team in the game. Veteran closer Joe Nathan eliminates the ninth-inning anxiety the Tigers often felt last year. Ian Kinsler provides a table-setting presence.
Pessimistic look: The loss of shortstop Jose Iglesias is a big blow, forcing the Tigers to mix-and-match. Moreover, the left-side infield defense is a question, with rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos struggling in the spring. Losing starter Doug Fister depletes the starting rotation depth.

Realistic look: The A.L. Central is improving, but the Tigers still have the most talent. They underachieved last season, finishing only a game ahead of upstart Cleveland. Still, unless more injuries hit, the Tigers should win this division handily -- on the strength of their starting pitching alone.

Optimistic look: Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, who struggled for stretches last season, should show more consistency and anchor a good lineup. James Sheilds, with the carrot of free agency awaiting him, is primed for another big year as the team's ace and innings-eater. Greg Holland is the best closer most people don't know.

Pessimistic look: The loss of free agent Ervin Santana can't be negated by the signing of Jason Vargas. Losing bullpen set-up man Luke Hochevar for the season is a big blow for the staff. The team can't afford another long slump like the one it had in May and June last year.
Realistic look: The Royals have been building the last few years, incorporating young players from within, and their time would seem to be now. They lack the starting pitching depth to stay with the Tigers, but if things break right, they could, like last year, contend for a wild card into September.

Optimistic look: The addition of Prince Fielder gives the Rangers a lefty bat to team with Adrian Beltre in the middle of the order, and the park is far more suited for Fielder's power game than Comerica. Shin Soo Choo is an elite on-base man and will give Beltre and Fielder innumerable RBI opportunities. The double-play combination of Jurickson Profar and Elvis Andrus is highly athletic, though a shoulder injury will sideline Profar until June.
Pessimistic look: Profar -- and catcher Geovany Soto, who will be out 10-12 weeks because of a knee injury -- aren't the only ones hurting; Injuries have already hit the rotation, with Derek Holland sidelined, Matt Harrison slowed earlier and Yu Darvish set to open the season on the DL. Closer Joakim Soria has a history of breaking down. The catching corps, even when Soto returms, could be weak.
Realistic look: The Rangers have trended backwards the last three years, going from losing the World Series to losing in a wild-card playoff game to losing in a play-in game for the wild card. That's disturbing, but there's enough firepower in the lineup here to contend for the division title if the pitching can stay healthy enough.

Optimistic look: The A's are seemingly always better than the sum of their parts, with consecutive division titles and at least 94 wins in each of the last two seasons. Two of their best offensive players -- Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick -- had down years in 2013, yet the A's still won the division. The club should get more out of both this year. Josh Donaldson emerged last season as a cornerstone player.
Pessimistic look: Oakland is already dealing with injuries to its pitching staff, with Jarrod Parker sidelined for the season and A.J. Griffin out until at least May. For a low-payroll team, starting pitching injuries are difficult to overcome. The danger exists that overachieving teams will regress eventually. Closer Jim Johnson was used extensively the last two seasons and could have issues with durability.
Realistic look: It's never smart to count the A's out; just ask the Rangers. Billy Beane always manages to find inexpensive, productive pieces and Bob Melvin has quietly emerged as one of the game's best managers. The A's embrace their underdog status and should, as usual, be in the playoff race until the end.

Optimistic look: Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton have to be better . . . don't they? The two stars were limited by injuries last year but are healthy this spring and due for bounceback seasons. Mike Trout is, simply put, the game's best overall player -- by a good distance -- and still getting better. An aging rotation was improved by the acquisition of Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs.
Pessimistic look: Pujols and Hamilton are deteriorating and become payroll burdens. Ernesto Frieri isn't a trustworthy closer. The team's farm system has been stripped bare, limiting the Angels' ability to make a big deal at the trading deadline.
Realistic look: The Angels haven't made the postseason since 2009, but the rotation additions and better health of two of their biggest stars will signal a turnaround season that very much put the Angels in the race for the division.