Season 12 Recap: The Rays won 105 and took the division for the 4th straight year. Texas improved by 6 wins to 94 and claimed a wild card. Charlotte dropped 6 wins (to 78) and took 3rd, and Kansas City fell off by 11 wins (to 77). The Rangers pushed Oakland to 5 in the division round; Tampa Bay folded up in 5 in the ALCS versus the A's. Kansas City's Lorenzo Manto won his second MVP, and Tampa Bay's Santos Lorenzo took his second straight Cy Young.
TAMPA BAY RAYS
Season 12 Rankings: Runs - 2nd, Team ERA - 2nd, Fielding % - T 4th
Sayonara: RP James Hutton (option declined), SS Lefty Montgomery (free agency), IF Alex Itou, C Pedro Javier (released); LF Ching-Lung Chang, CF Scott Perry (trade)
New Faces: RF Carlos Cruz, CF Tony Merced, IF John Hasegawa (trade); RP Blade Malone, RP Humberto Lopez (free agency)
Rookie Possibilities: Season 9's 13th pick overall (by Houston), Mike Person, got 23 innings last year and will open in the ML 'pen.
OUTLOOK: The Rays got a lot cheaper and a lot slower in the off season. They moved their 2 best table-setters (and only base-stealers) in Chang and Perry; the lineup is now 6 power hitters and 3 defensive specialists. Carlos Cruz (who will share COF time with Rex Yearwood and Geraldo Roque) will have to improve big time over last year's numbers for the Rays to top 900 runs again. Although the Rays are known for pitching, the staff struggled last year if it wasn't Lorenzo, Vitiello or Crosby out on the hill. Without a good number of much-better innings from the likes of Lowry, Johnson, Person, et al, the Rays could have trouble winning the division again.
Season 12 Rankings: Runs -7th, Team ERA - 5th, Fielding % - 2nd
Sayonara: DH Al Perez (free agency)
New Faces: RP Vinny Park, RP Ben Daniels (free agency)
Rookie Possibilities: C Roger Berkman (Season 10 supplemental pick) got into 24 games last year and has made the roster.
OUTLOOK: Any conversation about the Rangers begins with the remarkable Sherry Pierre. All he did last year was win 23 for the 2nd straight year (and 20+ in 3 of the last 4) and set the new single-season record for innings pitched for the 4th straight year. As much as Pierre means, the Rangers will need a repeat performance of last season's career year (18-9, 2.94) by #2 starter Daniel Garcia (or a similar performance from one of the other starters) to contend. After a couple of down years, Gene Robinson bounced back last season and retains the closer job. Newcomers Park and Daniels solidify the setup role. Texas has a unique offense that was 2nd in both homers and steals last year. They'll platoon at C, 1B and all 3 OF positions. Rule 5 pickup Milt Howard led in homers with 27 (another 6 had over 20); 1B Brett Ross led with 47 steals, and another 7 players topped double figures.
Season 12 Rankings: Runs - 16th, Team ERA - 6th, Fielding % - T 4th
Sayonara: RP Turner Mordecai, SP Albie Prieto, RP Antonio Martin, RP Ben Daniels, RP Jeremy Burke, RP Ruben Sierra, C Frankie Spahn, RP Weldon Roberts, OF Johny Davis (free agency); SS Dicky Maurer, 1B Juan Chavez (released); SS Earl Barclay, SP Sven Barclay (trade)
New Faces: SP Rafael Gabriel, 3B Carlos Lee (trade); C Herman Lawson, RP Moe Reynolds, SP Davey Aquino, RP Shane Coyle (free agency)
Rookie Possibilities: OF Lynn Clinton (Season 8 supplemental pick) got a cup of coffee last season and has made the roster. Season 9 #1 pick (24 overall) Rex Davis makes the jump from AA to the ML rotation. Rule 5 pickup Geraldo Pineda (Season 9 supplemental pick by Portland) has made the team.
OUTLOOK: The Knights aren't used to having sub .500 seasons (only 2 in team history) and wasted no time in cleaning house this off season. Probably more changes on the way - there are no SS's or CF's currently on the ML roster, and stars Earl Jorgenson and Warren Justice are in their last contract years. Charlotte's facing a major power outage - they were 14th in the AL in Slugging Percentage last year and 2 of their top power guys (C Frankie Spahn and SS Earl Barclay) have moved on.
They're not going to make up for it with OBP - they were 16th last year. Their pitching prospects are much better, although they'll have to make up for the loss of relievers Turner Mordecai and Ben Daniels. Warren Justice remains a top starter, Hick Hernandez is a capable #2, and rookie Rex Davis has considerable promise. The bullpen will rely on the venerable Banana Klein and free agents Shane Coyle and Moe Reynolds.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Season 12 Rankings: Runs - 3rd, Team ERA - 13th, Fielding % - T 6th
Sayonara: RP Gary Meyer (released)
New Faces: none
Rookie Possibilities: Power-hitting C Benji Gutierrez (Season 9 IFA) could be ready to step up to the bigs. The Hukata bothers, Phil (Season 10 IFA) and Richard (also a Season 10 IFA) could both conceivably contribute as IF's this year. Swingmen Stewart Daniels (Season 9's #1 - 11 overall) and Deivi Nunez (Season 7 IFA) could see ML action as either SP's or relievers.
OUTLOOK: With an offense built around 2-time MVP Lorenzo Manto and Hersh Taylor, the Royals have one of the best attacks in Kinsella. LF Emil Pichardo deftly compliments the Big 2 and DH Harry Reid is still going strong at 36. When they need to take a base, Manto, Reid, SS Albie Pineda, and CF Wilt Benes are all accomplished thieves. KC's pitching has been threatening to come together since the arrival of SP's Armando Taveras and Sun Wanatabe in Season 10 - it just hasn't quite happened yet. Rookie Al Saenz had his moments in the 'pen last year (despite blowing 7 of 11 save opportunities), but aside from him and the top 2 starters, the staff was pretty much a disaster in Season 12. They'll need more than a few bounce-back years from the likes of Kirwan, Barry, Crespo, etc. (and they're capable of getting them) to get into contention.
I just don't feel good about the Rays' chemistry...no table-setters or speed of any kind, Crosby's in steep decline and the rest of the 'pen is a huge question mark. I think they'll struggle. The Rangers may have overachieved a bit last year, although I liek what they've done with a platoon-heavy lineup. The Knights just aren't going to score enough runs to contend...new mid-season addresses for Justice and Jorgenson? KC's going to score plenty, and I think their pitching will be better. This is the year 95 wins takes the division, and I'm picking the Royals in an upset.