With 2011 drawing to a close, and 2012 about to begin, it's time for the 30 major league teams to make their New Year's resolutions. Here are my suggestions for the 14 American League clubs...
The Texas Rangers resolve to get that last strike. Twice the Rangers were one strike away from winning the 2011 World Series. Twice, the Cardinals rallied to tie Game Six, after which they won both that game and the next, dashing Texas' hope of its first World Series win. Only one other team has ever gotten within a strike of a world championship only to lose the World Series, and it took the Boston Red Sox another 18 years to finally break their championship drought. The Rangers, winners of the last two AL Pennants, don't want to wait that long. The bulk of their team is still intact, and though they lost default ace C.J. Wilson to the rival Angels, they are on the verge of adding 25-year-old Japanese stud Yu Darvish, the best Nippon Professional Baseball pitcher ever to become available to a major league team in his prime, to their rotation. Winning three consecutive pennants is an extremely difficult feat, and the only team to ever lose consecutive World Series then come back to win the next was the 1921 to '23 Yankees, who happened to have Babe Ruth in their lineup, but the American League outlook hasn't changed all that much since the 2011 season ended with the exception of one team who could make life particularly difficult on the Rangers.
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim resolve to take their division back. The Angels went to the playoffs six times in eight years from 2002 to 2009 and won the AL West five times the final six seasons in that stretch. The last two years, they've watched the playoffs from home while the team that won their division did something they've done just once, in 2002 -- win the pennant -- doing so last year after striking out on top free agents such as Carl Crawford (likely a good thing) and Adrian Beltre (less so). The response: general manager Tony Reagins and Mike Scioscia's pet catcher, the sub-replacement-level Jeff Mathis are out. Rookie GM Jerry DiPoto is in, as are Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, the latter joining an already impressive rotation of Jered Weaver, signed to a five-year extension in August, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana. Mix in one of the two best prospects in baseball in center fielder Mike Trout, and the Angels are back in the game giving the AL West a pair of at-all-costs competitors to rival the Yankees and Red Sox in the East.
The Oakland A's resolve to guilt Major League Baseball into letting them move to San Jose. "We got nowhere else to go! Look at us! We had to trade our only good young pitchers who stayed healthy last year! We can't win in this ballpark! It's now impacting our baseball planning! We need a new venue to compete! How are we supposed to keep up with the Angels and Rangers playing in the Raiders' stadium? Just for us to catch up to Seattle we probably would have to spend an extra $40 or $50 million! We'd like to have at least a fighting chance! Pleeeeeeze? Can't you see how pathetic we are?!" (Note: only four of those sentences are actual Billy Beane quotes)
The Seattle Mariners resolve to try to win all of their games 1-0. King Felix, Michael Pineda . . . Danny Hultzen? Why not? The Mariners are going to give the number-two pick in the 2012 draft a chance to make their starting rotation out of camp, because the University of Virginia product just might be good enough already, and, let's be honest, they're just not going to score, so their only hope of winning is to keep their opponents from doing so too. The Mariners have been dead last in the majors in runs scored the last two seasons and only avoided that status in 2009 by two tallies. That's in the majors. The worst offensive team in the league in which the pitchers hit has out-scored the Mariners in each of the last two seasons. The Mariners don't need Dustin Ackley to lift their offense, they need Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Sampson, Hercules and Apollo.
The Detroit Tigers resolve to tighten their grip on the AL Central. The Tigers won the AL Central by 15 games in 2011 and there's little reason to expect things will be much closer in the coming season. Sure, the team is loaded with regression candidates, not the least among them being Justin Verlander, who will have a hard time repeating his MVP performance of this past season, as anyone would, but there's simply no other team in the division who looks at all prepared to challenge them. Anything less than a division title should be considered a severe disappointment in Detroit in 2012.
The Cleveland Indians resolve to contend again this year. The thing about New Year's resolutions is that most people break them. The Indians, who went 60-74 (.448) after a fluky 20-8 start and finished with an overall third-order record of 74-88 (.459), seem like the most likely on this list to break theirs despite the additions of Ubaldo Jimenez, at this year's trading deadline and Derek Lowe (see the Yankees comment below), just after the season, to their starting rotation.
The Chicago White Sox resolve to resolve something. The White Sox have made two major moves thus far this offseason. The first saw them trade their young, team-controlled closer, Sergio Santos, for a Double-A pitching prospect, after which general manager Kenny Williams said the trade was, "the start of a rebuilding." The second saw them extend lefty starter John Danks, who was about to enter his walk year at age 27 and was considered the team's top trade chip, to a five-year contract worth $65 million. So which is it? The White Sox actually signed Santos to a three-year extension in late September, barely two months before trading him, so perhaps Danks' contract is a red herring (or cost certainty for his new team), but until the second shoe drops on Williams rebuilding, South Side fans will wonder exactly what their team is up to.
The Kansas City Royals resolve to start their climb toward contention. A year ago, I wrote "The Kansas City Royals resolve to give their fans a glimpse of the future," and they did. Twelve players made their major league debuts with the Royals in 2011. Among them were top prospects Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas at first and third base, who, with second baseman Johnny Giavotella, comprise three-fourths of Kansas City's starting infield for 2012. Also in that group were starting catcher Salvador Perez, left-handed starter Danny Duffy, and All-Star reliever Aaron Crowe, who may move into the rotation this spring. The Royals still have several top prospects on the farm, but with that first wave in place, Alex Gordon coming off a break-out season in left field, and Lorenzo Cain ready to take over in center, the future has arrived in Kansas City. That means it's time for the team to start winning.
The Minnesota Twins resolve to keep their player's on the field. The Twins led the major leagues in days lost to injury in 2011, the most harmful of those being the more than three months lost by both Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau to a variety of ailments. The Twins's overall performance in the wake of those injuries translated to nearly 106 third-order losses, so they aren't likely to be contenders in the coming season, even with a healthy Mauer and Morneau, the latter of which seems like a long shot more than a year and a half after his career-derailing concussion. Still, whatever chance they have of mattering in 2012 is predicated on their ability to keep their players healthy. New left fielder Josh Willingham, who has averaged just 121 games per season over the last four years, might make their lineup look better, but he only makes their training staff's job all the more difficult.
The New York Yankees resolve to acknowledge that A.J. Burnett is a sunk cost. Burnett is entering the fourth year of his five-year, $82.5 million contract with New York. Over the last two seasons, no pitcher has thrown more innings with a worse ERA+ than Burnett's 84 (though John Lackey, Jake Westbrook, and new Indian Derek Lowe came very close). In July of 2011, the Yankees demoted Ivan Nova to keep Burnett in their rotation when Phil Hughes came off the disabled list and almost immediately fell out of first place. Having thus far forgone outside help for their rotation this offseason, the Yankees can't afford to be so foolish again. If Burnett is still sporting an ERA north of five mid-season while one of the team's many pitching prospects is thriving in Triple-A, the Yankees have to acknowledge that they're not getting any of Burnett's salary back and put their best starting pitchers in their rotation.
The Tampa Bay Rays resolve to let their opponents score now and again, in the interest of fair play. No American League team has allowed fewer runs than the Rays over the last two seasons. Last year, the Rays turned every opponent into the Twins, a broken team playing in a cavernous ballpark, by allowing just 3.8 runs per game despite facing the Yankees and Red Sox, the two most potent offenses in baseball, 36 times. In 2012, they'll add Matt Moore to their starting rotation, a pitching prospect so good that he has only appeared in three regular season games in the majors but has already earned a postseason win (well-earned via seven scoreless innings in Arlington) and a five-year contract. With the Yankees and Red Sox having thus far done nothing to upgrade their shaky starting rotations, the Rays may be the team to beat in the East this year, though they, too, have some work to do before Opening Day, such as finding a first baseman.
The Boston Red Sox resolve to lay off the beer and fried chicken. That and find someone other than Daniel Bard to prop up their rotation. It's easy to be pessimistic and flip about this team after the way the 2011 season ended and the organization cleaned house, but they have yet to do anything this offseason to alter that attitude.
The Toronto Blue Jays resolve to finish ahead of one of the big three teams in the East. The Blue Jays are getting serious. They bid big on Yu Darvish and have flirted with Prince Fielder. In Alex Anthopoulos' two years as general manager, he has completely rebuilt the Jays farm system while adding major league pieces such as shortstop Yunel Escobar, center fielder Colby Rasmus, right-hander Brandon Morrow, and now closer Sergio Santos. Third baseman Brett Lawrie, another player brought in by Anthopoulos, looks like an emerging stud who can combine with miracle man Jose Bautista to give the Blue Jays two top-flight hitters in the heart of their order, a lineup that also lacks any especially soft spots. The Jays likely need one more piece to be ready to challenge the hegemony of the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox, but that just shows how close they are to being ready.
The Baltimore Orioles resolve to remember Game 162. The Orioles have no hope of contending in 2012. None. They're not just a weak team, they're a weak team buried under a thousand miles of stone and marble. They were in a similar spot a year ago, but they had a huge impact on the season nonetheless. A team notorious for folding down the stretch prior to manager Buck Showalter's arrival in 2010, the Orioles relished their role a spoiler to the last, rallying from a 3-2 deficit in the bottom of the ninth inning of the final game of the season to beat Jonathan Papelbon and the Red Sox, effectively eliminating Boston from the playoffs. That season-ending walk-off win was the most exciting moment in Orioles baseball this century and a message to every also-ran that their games still matter. The 2011 season was a reminder that a manager can't make a bad team into a contender on his own, but he can make a bad team play hard from the first pitch of the season to the last, and that has value as well.