The 2020 baseball season is rapidly approaching. Spring Training is in full swing, the big transactions from the offseason have occurred. New players are trying to settle into their new surroundings, and the regular season will begin in a matter of weeks, not months. It is that time of year. Let’s see where the American League and its three divisions stand just before the start of the season.
American League East
The New York Yankees are the unquestioned favorite in the American League East. Whether it is Aaron Judge or Gary Sanchez or D.J. LeMahieu or Luke Voit or any of several other names, the Yankees have a batting order full of mashers, guys who can hit 30 home runs in a season and wear out opposing pitching. The Yankees have solid, reliable starting pitching from Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, and Domingo German. They still have Aroldis Chapman as their closer. So many of the reliable players from recent seasons are back. Yes, the Yankees don’t have Didi Gregorius, who has moved to the Philadelphia Phillies, and yes, Luis Severino will have to have Tommy John surgery. However, the Yankees have stockpiled talent and depth… and now they have Gerrit Cole. The superstar pitching acquisition of the offseason, Cole comes with a huge price tag, but one which might be worth it for the Yankees. He was unhittable for much of 2019 with the Houston Astros. He will stay in the American League, so he will remain familiar with all the hitters and should be able to impose his will on them once again. Having a stopper to limit losing streaks and provide stability to the starting rotation is just what the Yankees needed to remain atop the American League East and fend off a challenge from the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Rays are one of baseball’s most overachieving teams, and they certainly have found a formula which enables them to win without a lot of high-dollar players. Yet, the Yankees’ acquisition of Gerrit Cole is the kind of trump card which puts Tampa Bay at a great disadvantage in the divisional race. The Rays are still a very good bet for a wild card spot, but the Yankees have the best team in the East without a doubt.
The Boston Red Sox have the name recognition in this division, but if a team might sneak up on someone as a sleeper, it is the Toronto Blue Jays. They got Hyun-jin Ryu in the offseason to bolster their starting rotation. They did lose Marcus Stroman to the Mets, but Ryu might wind up being an upgrade in the bigger picture. The fascinating thing with the Jays is that their success in 2020 relies upon two sons of highly accomplished major-league ballplayers: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette.
Vlad Jr. is obviously the son of Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero. Bo Bichette is the son of slugger Dante Bichette, who enjoyed a long and productive career. If these two sons of ballplayers – people who were exposed to baseball at an early age and have quickly risen to the point where they have a place as big-league starters – can maximize their potential in 2020, the Blue Jays would have the depth and balance to make a real playoff push. It isn’t likely, but it will certainly be one of the more fascinating stories in Major League Baseball this year.
American League Central
The Minnesota Twins have surpassed the Cleveland Indians as the favorite in the American League Central. You could make the argument that the Indians assumed they would win last season and were caught off guard by the Twins’ surprising home run power. Cleveland, as an organization, did not make significant moves in the offseason preceding the 2019 regular season. The Indians felt they could stand pat and rely on players who had won multiple division championships in previous years and had come within one swing of the 2016 World Series championship, falling to the Chicago Cubs in an extra-inning Game 7 loss. Cleveland thought it had enough to thwart the Twins in 2019, but that clearly did not turn out to be true. Now the scene shifts to 2020, and it feels that the ground has shifted in this battle between the two franchises.
Cleveland has continued to remain with relatively the same roster it had in 2019, except for some relatively minor changes. The Indians have felt it imprudent to make a large-scale trade to change the chemistry and composition of their team. The Twins have continued to grow their roster and create upside.
Minnesota’s breakout 2019 season was built on the strength of five players hitting 30 or more home runs, one of the rarer and more special team achievements in recent Major League Baseball history. The five players – Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario, Mitch Garver, Max Kepler, and Nelson Cruz – have all been retained for the 2020 season… and the Twins have still managed to upgrade. They landed third baseman Josh Donaldson, who spent last year helping the Atlanta Braves win the National League East. Donaldson is one of the more proven veteran players in the game, having helped the Toronto Blue Jays make the American League Championship Series twice, and having guided the Braves to the top of their division last season. Minnesota definitely gained more than Cleveland did in the offseason, so the Twins ought to be the choice as the A.L. Central favorite in 2020.
The team other than the Indians and Twins which could make some noise in this division is clearly not the Detroit Tigers. It is clearly not the Kansas City Royals. Those franchises are in the middle of rebuilds. The Chicago White Sox, though, might be able to become the dark horse team in the American League Central. The White Sox got Dallas Keuchel from the Braves, Edwin Encarnacion from the New York Yankees, and Yasmani Grandal from the Milwaukee Brewers. Those are three very good veteran players who can immensely help a young roster become tougher, more cohesive, and less burdened over the course of a full season. The White Sox have assembled promising young players such as Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech who, if they can blossom in 2020, would give the White Sox comparable depth and balance relative to the Twins and Indians. The White Sox are probably one year away from being in the very best position to contend for the division, but it is hardly ridiculous to think that they could arrive one year ahead of schedule. The 2018 and 2019 seasons were genuine rebuilds in which the White Sox never did expect to compete… but in 2020, they have begun to act like a contender and might be able to have the results to show for it.
American League West
The American League West is probably the toughest, deepest division in the American League in 2020. This division and the National League Central (Cardinals, Cubs, Brewers) has a very good chance of having a three-team race, as opposed to a two-team battle.
The Houston Astros have to deal with two basic challenges: First, they lost Gerrit Cole to the New York Yankees. Cole was arguably the best pitcher in baseball last year. He didn’t win the Cy Young Award, but he was unhittable or close to it for a large portion of the season. He often dominated lineups more comprehensively than teammate Justin Verlander did. Yet, Verlander won the Cy Young. The Astros are going to miss Cole’s brilliance and his ability to eat up innings.
The other challenge the Astros must face is that they won’t have manager A.J. Hinch, and will be facing a hostile American League after being busted for cheating in previous seasons. Opposing teams are going to want to beat the Astros more than any other team in baseball in 2020. The Astros are public enemy number one throughout Major League Baseball. They will get the best shot every opponent has. That will probably reduce their win total by a few games. The loss of Cole will hurt as well.
The good news is that the Astros still have Verlander plus Zack Greinke and their deep, talented batting order. That will see them through a lot of rough patches. They are still going to be a team which probably wins 90 games. The Oakland A’s won’t have it easy.
Yet, the A’s might have finally arrived at their time. They have hungry, young players who almost beat the Astros in each of the past two seasons but might finally have seen enough erosion in Houston to pounce in 2020. The A’s know they need to take advantage of the Astros… because the Los Angeles Angels now have Joe Maddon as their new manager and Anthony Rendon to help Mike Trout in the batting order. The Angels are going to be good… but their starting pitching might not be ready just yet.
Take the A’s over the Astros with the Angels in a competitive third place. All three could be wild card teams at season’s end.
The Texas Rangers are a better sleeper team if only because the Seattle Mariners are starting over, but in truth, there isn’t a good sleeper team in this division unless you want to consider the Angels a sleeper and not a mainline contender. Given how much the A’s and Astros have battled the past two years, the Angels being a sleeper might still be a fair characterization, but it’s hard to be an outsider with Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon, and Joe Maddon managing the ballclub.