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AL fantasy baseball predictions

This week we turn our attention to the American League, making a handful of predictions for the Junior Circuit. For real-life purposes, the AL figures to be a murderer's row this season. In my opinion, the five best teams in the majors all reside in the American League (in no particular order: Yankees, Rays, Tigers, Angels, Rangers). After those five, the Blue Jays and Red Sox are legitimate, second-tier playoff contenders. You can probably safely write-off the rest of the league for playoff contention, though the Indians and Royals are both intriguing, and could hang around the fringes semi-deep into the season.

We're here, however, for the fantasy game, and the American League features plenty of young, exciting players bound for stardom. They dominate my five bold predictions for the AL in 2012.

The 40 steals quoted here hardly represent me going out on a limb. Other than an injury-shortened 2008, Jennings has swiped at least 32 bags in each of his seasons in professional baseball. In just 63 games in the majors last year, he stole 20 bases while getting caught six times. Assuming he plays a full season, 40 steals feels like a lock.

The 20 homers, however, are a risky proposition. Jennings has been an intriguing prospect since being drafted by the Rays back in '06, but scouts never really talked about his power potential. Before last year, he had never hit more than 11 homers in a season ('08), and eight of those 11 came at the Double A level. But last year, he hit 12 jacks in 338 at-bats at Triple A Durham, before hitting 10 more after his call-up to Tampa. While there's a chance last year's power surge was a mirage, I'm betting that it's more the case of a 25-year old maturing, getting stronger and developing power. His three-homer game over the weekend put everyone on notice, and raised his spring training slash to .348/.388/.565. He has also stolen four bases in 46 at-bats. At a time when Major League Baseball is blessed with a plethora of young, talented outfielders, Jennings will join their ranks in '12.

A consensus developed this draft season that Teixeira rounded out a group of six first basemen that were a cut above the rest. While most people would say some within that group are a cut above Teixeira, myself included, he was considered safely ahead of the next few first basemen on the board. Come September, that consensus will look foolish.

Two AL Central first basemen, Paul Konerko and Eric Hosmer, were generally ranked seventh and eighth at the position by a majority of fantasy experts. Both will finish ahead of the purportedly superior Teixeira this season.

Other than home runs, all of Teixeira's numbers are trending downward. His batting average and OBP have fallen each year since '08. His OBP ticked slightly upward last year, though it still left plenty to be desired at .494. He walked in just 11.1 percent of his plate appearances, his worst total since '05. He hit the smallest percentage of line drives in any year of his career last year, as well as the second-most popups. Simply put, you can count on the homers and RBI, but not much else.

Meanwhile, Konerko brings the same 30-home run and 100-RBI floors to the table without the damaging rates. While Texeira has registered batting averages of .256 and .248 and OBPs of .365 and .341 the last two years, Konerko was at .312/.393 in 2010 and .300/.388 last year. As for Hosmer, we only have one season to go on, but the guy hit .293/.334/.465 with 19 homers and 27 doubles at 21 years old. With even scant progression, he should pass Teixiera in the first-base pecking order this season.

Despite mentioning Jennings' spring stats above, I usually don't put much stock into output until the actual season starts. However, there are exceptions to every rule, and when The Next Big Thing from Japan makes his first handful of spring starts, the results are more relevant than, say, whatever Roy Halladay has done this spring. The early returns on Darvish are in, and needless to say he has not been disappointing.

In 15 innings this spring, Darvish has allowed six earned runs on 12 hits, striking out 21. The eight walks seem high, but they're hardly anything to be concerned about at this point. Those numbers include an 11-strikeout performance against what figures to be the Rockies' regular lineup in six innings. Perhaps most impressive from that game, Colorado stars Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez combined to go 0-for-6 with six strikeouts against Darvish. Not only does he figure to rack up the strikeout totals generally associated with Cy Young winners, with the Rangers' bats, defense and bullpen backing him, Darvish should win his fair share of games and then some. The American League has plenty of candidates, but the cupboard isn't quite as stacked with elite arms as it is in the National League. While Jered Weaver and David Price will be right there nipping at his heels, Darvish will bring home the Cy Young -- as well as the Rookie of the Year -- in helping lead the Rangers to another AL West crown.

Darvish won't be the only Ranger winning hardware this season. But before we get to Kinsler's prospects for '12, let's look back at '11.

Kinsler had what I believe to be his best season a year ago, when he hit 32 homers and 34 doubles, stole 30 bases, drove in 77 runs, drew 89 walks compared with just 71 strikeouts, all while playing Gold Glove-caliber second base. He totaled 5.4 wins above replacement, better than fellow second baseman Robinson Cano. Yet he came in 11th place in MVP balloting. Why? Well, I can't read the minds of the voters, but I'd bet it had a lot to do with Kinsler's .255 batting average. We can't expect the BBWAA to eschew that antiquated measure of a player's offensive worth, but we can expect Kinsler to post a better batting average this year.

Last season, Kinsler had a remarkably low .243 BABIP, well less than the major league average. This was despite posting a line-drive rate of 17.6 percent and a ground-ball rate of 35.3 percent, five percentage points less than in '10 when he hit .286. Yes, my friends, I believe Kinsler's '11 batting average reflects a disproportionately high amount of bad luck. Should that come down this year, expect Kinsler's batting average to bump back up 15-25 points this season.

In addition, Kinsler walked at a 12.3-percent rate, the best of his career, while striking out a career-low 9.3 percent of the time. Kinsler developed a greater degree of plate discipline, swinging at just 20 percent of balls outside the strike zone, also a career low. With one of the league's best lineups and hitters' parks giving him a great environment, I see another 30-30 year for Kinsler en route to his first MVP award.

There will be plenty of awards down in Arlington this season, but at least one of the two they truly want will reside 1,100 miles to the east. The Rays will finally get back at their Texas tormentors this season, dispatching the Rangers in the ALCS to get back to the World Series for the second time in five years. The game is transitioning back to a pitcher's league, and with David Price, James Shields, Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson, the Rays boast the league's most impressive foursome in the rotation. The infield defense is solid, if not spectacular, with the sure-handed Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena manning the corners, and it gets a boost any time Reid Brignac is in the lineup. Desmond Jennings joins B.J. Upton in one of the league's fastest outfields. And the four of them, along with the perpetually underrated Ben Zobrist and Matt Joyce, give the Rays a better offense than they're getting credit for heading into the season. They'll have to survive the AL's first Wild-Card coin-flip game after the Yankees win the East, but they'll do that and then take out the Bronx Bombers on their way to revenge over the Rangers and the World Series.

Chat with me on Twitter, @MBeller.

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