Kansas City RoyalsSeason 35: 77-85
Offseason: Lost their top home run hitter (32) Orlando James to FA (Toronto) and released 3B Adys Bethancourt. Signed 3B/OF Jin-Chi Donald and SP Zach Lennon to FA contracts.
Outlook: After winning 86 and 91 in the first 2 seasons of the tdfactory era, the Royals face a crossroads after seasons of 78 and 77 wins. The Season 35 offense was competent with 726 runs (7th in AL), but the pitching imploded with a 4.74 Team ERA despite sterling defense behind them.
Donald will be an obvious upgrade over Bethancourt; I think they'll sorely miss James' power, but the offense should still be OK with aging but still-potent pros like Henry Mercedes and Rabbit Grilli in the lineup.
Pitching will be a different story; Lennon's not likely to offer much help and they can't bank on Kent Pederson and Spud Bando to spin up sub-4.00 ERA's again. Tony Rivera is among the league's
best relievers, but can only go so many innings.
Even with a payroll approaching $118MM, the Royals are going nowhere this season. Next year is their last big payment to Grilli, so this year and next may see some dramatic departures. Watch for Mercedes, Rivera and CF Kyle Lintz to be prominently mentioned at the trade deadline.
Tampa Bay RaysSeason 35: 90-72, won Division for 3rd straight year and 10th time in 11 seasons. Lost in playoffs to Boston in 2nd round.
Offseason: Landed one of the top hitters in free agency in Miguel Arias (formerly of Montreal). Arias is one of the rarest commodities in the game - a lefty-swinging, power-hitting (43 long balls last year), good defensive infielder. He replaces Juan Park (off to Seattle) in the lineup and represents a good upgrade both on offense and defense. The Rays also added SP Ed Reed (Florida), RP Adrian Beck (Colorado) and 3B Walker Cather (Houston) in a very active free agent season.
Outlook: Arias will be a much-needed addition (at least for a couple of seasons) to the offense, which was a little under the AL average last year.1B Chris Freel led the team in OPS last year with .821, and I'd give 10-to-1 he won't be better than that this year. Eugenio Tejada offers some bonus power (26 HR, .800 OPS), but overall I'd guess they'll be run-challenged again. The pitching was 4th with a 3.92 ERA, and it's where the stars are. Max Mullens had a monster Season 35 (23-9, 2.80 ERA, 254 IP) and will be looking to repeat and nail down his last monster contract. He's capably complimented by 1-inning specialist Brady Rapp, the effectively-wild Harry Prado, and the even-more-effectively-wild J.R. Voight.
Texas RangersSeason 35: 67-95
Offseason: Some minor free agent comings and goings, but the major improvements (or lack thereof) for this team will come from the dividends of last year's trade of Walter Brooks to the Cubs. The biggest name, Antonio Washington (Season 31 #10 overall), debuted with a promising 3.28 ERA in 85 innings last year. Relievers Ernest Black (Season 32 #65) and Dellin Vega (Season 34 IFA) could the the call at game 20 this year.
Outlook: Everything took a step backwards last year with the Brooks trade, but there's talent here. New 3B Joseph Cho hit .375 in a 56-AB cup of coffee last year. 1B McNicoll and DH Logan are solid hitters, and the enigmatic LF, Harry Ruiz, OPS'd .916 as recently as Season 34 (and is still just 26). Not a sure thing by any means, but they could eclipse last year's 649 runs (13th in AL) by a lot. With Max Basile and Macbeth Kohlmeier at the top of the rotation and Washington getting 120 IP in multiple roles, maybe this is the year the Rangers' pitching breaks through. The rest of the staff looks a little shaky; if they bring up Black and Vega at Game 20, Texas' pitching just might crack the top 7 or 8.
Nashville SoundsSeason 35: 71-91
Offseason: No free agent moves for the Sounds...they promoted a couple of minor-leaguers to compliment last year's bumper crop of rookies. They did lose 3B Lenny Taylor (San Diego), who posted a more than competent .757 OPS.
Outlook: Nashville's offense surged to tie for 5th in runs last year (732) behind AL ROY Gus Kirby's .331/24/88 (with help from 4 other players who hit 20+ home runs). Taylor's likely hot corner replacement is Vinny Karl, who got 373 AB's last year playing 7 different positions. Ringo Frye secured the SS position for the forseeable future with his Gold Glove performance. Currently there are only 12 position players on the roster; they'll probably add an OF or 2 somehow during Spring Training.
The Sounds' pitching was dead last in the AL with a 4.87 ERA, and they have pretty much the sam staff entering tis year. They did promote Jolbert Montero (after 4 seasons no higher than High A); needless to say, he's not the answer.
The offense will be pretty entertaining, but another long year in Music City.
DIVISION PREDICTION: Tampa Bay wins it again; Texas makes a little run at them and finishes 2nd.