Prior to the 2012 baseball season, a few things were clear. The Astros were terrible, the NL East was loaded, and there were six great teams contending for five spots in the American League.
The Rangers were coming off back-to-back pennants, were loaded on both sides of the ball, and were full of young players on the rise. The Angels added CJ Wilson to firm up the best rotation in the AL and added perhaps the best right-handed hitter in baseball history to their lineup. The Tigers added Prince Fielder to a squad that ran away with the Central in 2011 and would have a full year of Doug Fister behind Justin Verlander in the rotation. The Yankees had made the playoffs in 15 of the past 16 seasons and added pitching depth in the offseason. The Rays had the league’s best player, a young core, and the best AL rotation outside of Anaheim. The Red Sox brought back nearly the entire roster from a team that couldn’t lose from May to August last year.
A few other teams showed promise- most notably Toronto, who had a collection of talent strong enough to perhaps stay afloat in the brutal AL East, and Cleveland, who could only lose so many games against the sad AL Central. Should two of the aforementioned powerhouses slip, there might be an opening for one of these teams.
Just days into the season, the six great teams started to dwindle. Weeklong sample sizes are only so predictive, but some truths were immediately evident as the season began. Boston’s rotation (5.88 ERA to-date) hasn’t recovered from last September’s meltdown, and their bullpen (4.53) isn’t much better. They’ll continue to hit (they lead the AL in runs per game), and stand to gain a lot from players like Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Kevin Youkilis coming off the DL, but even if they score 1,000 runs, a team with this pitching can’t be considered great.
The addition of Pujols masked the Angels’ offensive shortcomings. They’re walking less than any AL team (6.4% of PAs) and consequently rank behind every AL team outside of the West with a .296 OBP. Pujols will recover from his miserable start (.196/.237/.295), but this team won’t hit, and the bullpen, a strength throughout the Mike Scioscia era, has been even worse than Boston’s, by all objective measures. Like the Red Sox, they may recover and contend for the postseason, but they’re hardly great.
The knock against Detroit since the Fielder signing has been their porous infield defense, and indeed they rank last in the AL with a -13.4 team UZR, but that’s not the end of their problems. With Fister injured, the rotation has been weak behind Verlander. Drew Smyly has an ERA below 2, but that’s due in large part to an unsustainable 94% strand rate. Max Scherzer is walking almost four hitters per nine and Rick Porcello’s barely striking out that many. Fister’s replacement, Adam Wilk, has given up four homers in 11 innings in his first three starts. Furthermore, the offense has been below average (95 wOBA), perhaps exposing the lack of depth behind Miguel Cabrera and Fielder. The Tigers should still win the Central, but they’re more good than great.
With the Yankees’ resources, front-line talent, and enviable depth, it’s hard to argue that they ever put a less-than-great team on the field. They addressed their primary concerns late in the offseason by adding Michael Pineda, Hiroki Kuroda, and Raul Ibanez, and entered 2012 favorites as usual. Pineda’s now out for the season, and the rotation’s been CC Sabathia and pray for rain. Kuroda has a pedestrian 4.26 FIP in his first crack at the AL, Freddy Garcia has an ERA near 10, and Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova have given up more than two homers per nine innings between them. The bullpen will be fine, with David Robertson, perhaps the AL’s best reliever, filling in at closer, but Mariano Rivera’s injury will shift everyone into a new role, perhaps resulting in a few leaks in the middle innings. Defensively, Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano have graded out better than last year in the early going, but the team has more age than range, particularly with Brett Gardner on the shelf.
Moreso than the prior three teams, the Yankees are likely to recover, particularly if Nova keeps striking out nearly a batter an inning and Derek Jeter (.397/.439/595) and Curtis Granderson (.284/.386/.587) keep raking, while Cano starts hitting and Hughes stops giving up homers. Still, it remains to be seen whether a team with problems in the rotation and the league’s second-worst defense (-8.2 UZR) can be considered great.
That leaves two potentially great teams, and it’s hard to argue with the first one. Texas does everything well, from defense (AL-best 14.0 UZR) to starting pitching (3.69 FIP) to relief pitching (2.74 FIP, best in the game). And we all know about their offense, which is hitting .284/.345/.457 as a team and scoring more runs per game than any AL team outside of Boston.
The Rays, meanwhile, are hitting surprisingly well (116 RC+) and have the second-best walk rate in the AL, even with Evan Longoria on the DL. Their rotation has weathered Matt Moore’s early ineffectiveness (5.71 ERA) to compile a 3.51 team ERA. Jeremy Hellickson is singlehandedly trying to debunk FIP theory, again outpacing his ugly 5.09 FIP with a 2.75 ERA. The bullpen, once again pieced together on a shoestring budget, has been above average so far and is a good bet to remain effective pitching in Tropicana Field half the time. Calling the Rays great assumes James Shields is better than he’s been, Hellickson is for real, Longoria will come back at least half as great as he was before the injury, and Ben Zobrist can recover from the .206 BABiP he’s posted so far to start hitting like he did in 2009 and 2011.
What about the other teams in the American League? The Blue Jays are hitting well, but probably won’t pitch enough to contend. The Orioles have done everything right so far, but unless Jason Hammel and Jake Arrieta can maintain their BABiPs (.255 and .240, respectively), they aren’t a .500 team, let alone .700. Cleveland is worth watching, but lacks front-line pitching. I wasn’t alone in underestimating the White Sox’s arms, particularly Gavin Floyd and Jake Peavy, but they’ll have to win a lot of 1-0 games to contend, even in the Central. The Royals seem to be another year away, Minnesota is beyond awful, and there’s no offense out west except in Arlington.
The Rangers are an unquestionably great team. The Rays may be great as well. Other than the Yankees, if they catch a few breaks, there’s not another team in the American League without serious flaws. Six great teams fighting for five spots would have made for great theater, but two great teams and several better-than-average ones might be even better.