The overwhelming conversation around baseball right now has to do with the economics of the game, labor strife and a potential strike coming in a few years. That is not a great place to be as a league, in my expert opinion. One of the biggest issues the players have right now the lack of competitiveness around the league. There is a lot of talk about teams actively trying to lose, and while I do believe that happens I’m not sure that specifically is widespread. To me the issue is that teams simply aren’t doing everything they can to win, and that might be just as bad. Not long ago a lot of these middle class teams would push hard for that extra win or two, whereas now teams are willing to rely on randomness to put them over the hump.
Right now, the difference between the haves and the have-nots appears to be particularly stark in the American League. There is something of a Big Four in the AL with the Red Sox, Yankees, Astros and Indians, and it doesn’t feel like anyone else has a chance. It’s hard to argue too much against that mindset. If I had to do preseason predictions right now, I’d definitely have those four as the top four seeds in the league with the one question being who wins the AL East and who is the top wildcard. I would guess something like 95 percent of baseball fans would do the same. That all being said, I think this reality is causing us to underrate the middle tier of the AL right now. There are some really bad teams in the league, but playing an AL schedule won’t be a cakewalk for the Red Sox this year, and there are four teams outside that Big Four that could really surprise some people this year and be playoff contenders all year long.
The Rays were one of the biggest surprises in the game last year as many, myself included, thought they’d be near the bottom of the league. Instead, they won 90 games and made it through much of September in the playoff race. Looking ahead to the coming season, they could very well be back in that same win range. The Opener strategy got them a lot of attention last year, and while it will certainly be deployed again in 2019 it also won’t be as necessary. If they can get comebacks from Jose De Leon and Brent Honeywell, two pitchers who went down before the season started which was part of the reason they needed openers in the first place, they suddenly have a high-upside rotation. Add in a nice lineup that includes underrated players like Tommy Pham and Joey Wendle as well as potential breakouts in Wily Adames and Austin Meadous, and the Rays will be a tough matchup in every series.
The A’s were more than a mild surprise in 2018, inexplicably pushing the Astros all year long and winning a whopping 97 games en route to the Wildcard Game. I don’t see them winning that many games again in 2019, but they have a long way to fall before they are irrelevant. They have a sleeper MVP candidate in Matt Chapman, huge power with Khris Davis and Matt Olson, a potential breakout in Jurickson Profar, and absurd bullpen and some crazy devil magic that made every journeyman pitcher throw like an All-Star in their rotation last year. Oakland was the one team that gave the Red Sox consistent trouble in 2018, and there’s a solid chance they do that to a lot of teams in the coming year.
The Twins are probably the team I am most interested in seeing next year, because they are always an enigma. A couple of years ago they were totally slept on before making it to the Wildcard Game. Everyone expected them to build on that and contend again in 2018, but then they fell on their face. Now, the expectations are low again, and I think they’re poised to take another big jump forward. They have a lot of young, exciting upside in their lineup headlined by Byron Buxton but also including Miguel Sano, Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco. They also added Nelson Cruz to the middle of that group. In the rotation, Jose Berrios can be a real weapon at the top and Kyle Gibson is forever underrated. They could use another arm in the bullpen, but if things come together and they catch a couple of breaks, it wouldn’t be totally shocking if they pushed Cleveland for the AL Central title.
The Angels have Mike Trout, which seems like a hell of a start. It’s a shame that the best player of a generation and someone who is perhaps on his way to being the best player of all time hasn’t been on a winning team very often in his career, but there’s a chance that changes this year. The Angels need things to go right for them to really contend in 2018, but the pieces are there. The lineup could be a legitimate weapon with Trout, Shohei Ohtani (whenever he returns from injury), Andrelton Simmons and Justin Upton. Maybe Albert Pujols has another run in him, too. They also have a really intriguing bullpen that includes old friend Ty Buttrey playing a big role. The question for them, as always, is in the rotation. If their starters can stay healthy for once, the Angels are going to be wildcard contenders. Unfortunately it’s just a big if.
No, there still isn’t a ton of intrigue in the American League. The top four teams should dominate and roll to the playoffs. Still, there aren’t going to be as many pushovers as there have been in years past. We have eight teams listed here with the Big Four plus these other four, and later in the year teams like Toronto and Chicago should be scary once their young players come up and get acclimated. I’d still love to see more competitive balance and more trying to win around the league, but at the same time I think we’re overplaying the weakness of the American League just a little bit.