All right! Spring training is now officially here, with pitchers and catchers reporting at the beginning of this week. Since I have already tackled the various National League contenders in this space, it is now time to look at the American League's best teams. This will take a little longer, as there are nine (perhaps ten) teams with a real shot to make the playoffs in the junior circuit. There was more roster upheaval in the AL, and where better to start than with the completely revamped Toronto Blue Jays? Let's take a look at their new lineup:
SS Jose Reyes (S): .295/.352/.434, 11 HR, 39 SB, 4.3 WAR
LF Melky Cabrera (S): .295/.348/.432, 13 HR, 14 SB, 2.7 WAR
RF Jose Bautista (R): .259/.377/.529, 39 HR, 5.2 WAR
1B Edwin Encarnacion (R): .271/.359/.504, 31 HR, 3.3 WAR
3B Brett Lawrie (R): .289/.342/.465, 18 HR, 21 SB, 5.7 WAR
DH Adam Lind (L): .272/.329/.460, 22 HR, 1.0 WAR
CF Colby Rasmus (L): .237/.312/.427, 23 HR, 2.6 WAR
2B Maicer Izturis (S): .267/.333/.360, 3 HR, 11 SB, 1.1 WAR
C J.P. Arencibia (R): .232/.278/.451, 22 HR, 1.9 WAR
Thanks to acquiring about a quarter of Miami's 2012 roster, and buying low on a just-off-of suspension Cabrera, the Jays look to have quite the lineup, at least the top half. When healthy (and his hamstrings can be problematic), Reyes is a major threat at the top of the order, with a little pop and a lot of speed from both sides, even if he will probably never again top 60 stolen bases in a season, as he did from 2005-7. Perhaps the 2012 version of Cabrera was a PED-fueled mirage, but he can still hit and run more than a little, and avoid striking out; he should be a quality number two hitter. If Bautista is healthy (he missed major time in 2012) and Encarnacion was not just a one-year wonder, then that pair could approach 90-100 home runs together. I like Encarnacion to regress a little (as indicated above), but I think Joey Bats will be back to his pitcher-terrorizing ways in 2013. Lawrie is a rising star who should get some major attention this year (he's only 23). Lind and Rasmus are likely getting their last shots to hold down full-time starting jobs in Toronto. Both have been incredibly inconsistent, with Rasmus occasionally venturing into the atrocious (he hit .173 after the 2011 trade that brought him to Toronto). Arencibia offers power behind the plate, but no on-base skills, whereas backup Josh Thole (acquired from the Mets) offers the reverse. Izturis should split time with Emilio Bonifacio, who can also fill in at short, third, and the outfield.
Defensively, this group should be okay, but not great. Reyes is an elite shortstop with a rifle arm, and Rasmus offers plus defense even when his bat disappears. Bautista and Cabrera are quality defenders in the corners, with Bautista's value mostly coming from his rocket arm. Lawrie is growing into a good third baseman, and both Izturis and Bonifacio are good at second base, with Izturis having the edge. Neither of the catchers are any great shakes, but they should at least be catching a decent staff.
RHP R.A. Dickey: 226.0 IP, 152 K, 56 BB, 3.58 ERA, 3.76 FIP, 4.8 WAR
RHP Josh Johnson: 196.0 IP, 166 K, 62 BB, 3.21 ERA, 3.08 FIP, 4.0 WAR
LHP Mark Buehrle: 205.0 IP, 106 K, 41 BB, 3.78 ERA, 4.10 FIP, 2.2 WAR
RHP Brandon Morrow: 187.0 IP, 191 K, 66 BB, 3.47 ERA, 3.48 FIP, 3.3 WAR
LHP Ricky Romero: 185.0 IP, 140 K, 89 BB, 4.43 ERA, 4.46 FIP, 1.8 WAR
I am near 100% certain that Dickey will surpass those projections in a big way. Knuckleballers are hard to predict, but I doubt that he will slip from deserving Cy Young winner to somewhat above-average pitcher in just one season, even if he is 38. Dickey should strike out 200 batters or more with his knuckler, taking some pressure off of his defense. Johnson is an elite pitcher when he's not hurting, which he too often is; he's topped 100 innings only four times in eight seasons, and 200 innings just once. Unlike those first two, Buehrle will put pressure on his defense; he doesn't really strike out a lot of hitters, but he pumps out tons of quality starts with nothing more than a below-average fastball and good command. He has the longest streak of 200-inning seasons in the majors, with a round dozen. Morrow rounds out an excellent top four as another strikeout artist who will walk more guys than the three in front of him. Like Rasmus and Lind, Romero is probably pitching for his job this year after a horrendous 2012, when he led the league in walks and had an ERA of 5.77. If he falters or anyone gets hurt, J.A. Happ will slide into their spot.
Dickey's and Buehrle's biggest contributions this year may be in taking a lot of innings away from a bullpen that was the worst in the league last year. Casey Janssen and Sergio Santos will help the Jays' pen improve on last year's shabby performance, and the improved defense, particularly in the middle infield, should also help. I have to say, I think the Blue Jays picked a great time to push their chips into the middle. The two traditional powers in the division have major issues; the Red Sox are rebuilding and the Yankees look old and fairly one-dimensional. Among the other teams, the Orioles have "regression" written all over them and the Rays will have to disguise a couple of weaknesses as usual, given their limited payroll. I like the Jays to turn the East upside down and take home the division crown for the first time since 1993.