To begin my preview of the upcoming season, I wanted to start with the one player on each team who gets overlooked, but just might be the make the biggest difference between his team succeeding or failing.
Today we will cover the American League.
Chicago White Sox: Neal Cotts
While a lot of the focus will be on new arrivals Jim Thome and Javier Vasquez, the bullpen is where the defending champs have the biggest question marks. To think at this point last season I pointed out the incredible depth of their pen, with Takatsu, Politte, Hermanson, and Marte all with closer experience. This depth was vital, as Takatsu flamed out and Hermanson filled in until his back gave out. To fill the void, the Sox brought up a kid who wasn't even on the radar screen at the beginning of 2005, Bobby Jenks, who just might have been the biggest miracle of the team's miracle season. With Jenks struggling this spring training, Marte traded, and Hermanson on the DL, the best pitcher in the pen is now lefty Neal Cotts. Cotts was sensational last season, with a 2/1 K/BB ratio and an ERA of 1.94. Considered an afterthought in the Koch for Foulke trade, Cotts just might be the best left-handed reliever in the league.
Cleveland Indians: Cliff Lee
Sure, C.C. Sabathia is the opening day starter for the Tribe, but the best pitcher on the staff is Cliff Lee. His record over the past 2 years is 32-13, with last year having finishing in the AL Top 20 in WHIP (10th) and ERA (18th). At 28, he should be at his peak -- and with Sabathia, Westbrook, Byrd, and Jason Johnson, the Indians have the most underrated staff in all of baseball.
Minnesota Twins: Carlos Silva
How can a starting pitcher who only strikes out 71 batters all year finish with an ERA of 3.44 and a WHIP of 1.17? The best answer for that is to follow the Silva Method, by only giving out nine free passes in 188 innings. With the Twins deciding to follow the same early bullpen route with Francisco Liriano that they did with a younger Johan Santana, they will need Silva to continue to work his magic. I suspect that Silva, Colon, Garland, and Millwood are the four pitchers most likely to have a major slide from their 2005 levels. If I was a Twins fan, I would want Liriano hitting the bump every fifth day, instead of Lohse or Baker, but as a Sox fan, I think it's a great idea.
Detroit Tigers: Carlos Guillen
Check back to 2004, when the most important off-season pickup for the Tigers wasn't Pudge, but Guillen who posted a OPS of .921. Battling injuries in 2005, Guillen was limited to only 87 games, which was a devastating blow to their offense, as his replacement, Omar Infante (.621 OPS) slaps at the ball with all the force of Lamar Latrell. When healthy, he's the Tigers' best player.
Kansas City Royals: Ambiorix Burgos
For many years now, the Royals have struggled to find someone to finish games. I can't even remember a good closer in KC since Jeff Montgomery's 1993 season. The 22-year-old Burgos has great stuff, which his 65 Ks in 63 innings point to. On a team that continues to go nowhere, maybe the Royals can point to a quality closer they will have for the next six years, which means he should share the roster with Alex Gordon for awhile.
Oakland A's: Mark Ellis
With an OPS of .861, Ellis was behind only Brian Roberts in this category. It's hard to imagine either one of these players ever eclipsing this output, as both look to be wind-aided by career years around the time of their 27th birthday. While Swisher and Johnson are the young hitters the A's are hoping will continue to develop, they really need Ellis to keep his OPS over .800 to make up for some of the lack of power at other positions.
The Whatever Angels: Kelvim Escobar
While everyone seems to have knighted the A's as AL West champs, the Angels seem to be just as talented. The health of Escobar is the most important variable I see the Angels facing. Escobar has been excellent for the Angels when he's actually taken the rubber, with a 2.5/1 K/BB ratio. Last year, in 59 innings, batters hit a measly .207 against him, while his ERA and WHIP were 3.02 and 1.11, respectively. If Escobar and Santana pitch to their capabilities, I suspect Oakland will finish just short again.
Texas Rangers: The Outfield
Is there a more underrated outfield offensively than the one in Arlington. Over the past two years, both Kevin Mench (.874 in 2004) and David Delucci (.879 in 2005) have had a season with an OPS over .870. Add to this the talents of Brad Wilkerson, who has a career OPS of .817 despite playing in two pitcher-friendly parks. While it's hard to see Delucci coming anywhere close to his career year of 2005, Wilkerson and Mench should have monster years.
Seattle Mariners: Joel Pineiro
Just when he should be hitting his prime, Pineiro doesn't seem to be the same guy who just might have been the second best young pitcher in the AL behind only Johan Santana just three seasons ago. If Pineiro can come back from his injuries, the Mariners might be more competitive than expected.
New York Yankees: Shawon Chacon
Hard to consider anyone on the Yankees as being under the radar, when even the bullpen catcher gets more national pub than a starter on the Royals does. Chacon was part of the mid-season pitching miracle that Small Wang helped with. While Wang doesn't appear to be a fluke, the success of Chacon might be the difference between making the playoffs or not. Of course, if he fails, the Yankees can survive it by getting some of their money's worth from Pavano and Wright. Is there any pitching staff which has a bigger variable of success/failure than the Yankees?
Boston Red Sox: Kevin Youkilis
Sure, the performance of new hires Matt Clement and Josh Beckett are vital to what happens to the Red Sox, but the one player that has escaped national attention is Youkilis. Considering he plays first base, a position where power hitting is generally the norm, his career slugging percentage of .411 needs to make an uptick. Combine this with Mike Lowell on the other side of the diamond, plummeting in 2005 to a OPS of .658 and the Red Sox really are expecting a lot out of Ramirez and Ortiz. Don't be surprised if there isn't some kind of platoon set up between Youkilis, Lowell, and the recently acquired Hee Seop Choi.
Toronto Blue Jays: The other three starting pitchers
We all know that Roy Halladay is a stud and Burnett can be just as good when healthy, but the difference between fiinishing in third again and actually being in the playoffs will be determined by the guys in the 3, 4, and 5 slots. Josh Towers and Gustavo Cacin were pleasant surprises in 2005, but both pitchers had high opponent batting averages against them. (.274 and .285, respectively). Towers has great control, with a nearly 4/1 K/BB rate, so I suspect he will be somewhere close to his 2005 stats, but Cacin seems to be a candidate for a severe drop-off. The other starter, Ted Lilly, continues to be inconsistent and the Blue Jays really need for him to bounce back from last year's abysmal season.
Baltimore Orioles: Corey Patterson
Remember when Patterson used to be seen as a future superstar? Well, he's still only 26 and is only two seasons removed from an OPS of .865. In a lineup loaded with big boppers, the pressure will be off. If he can play closer to his 2002 year, the Orioles will challenge the Yankees for the best offense in baseball.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: The Bullpen
While the regular lineup is filled with exciting young players and the starting pitching looks better than it has in the past, who are these guys in the bullpen? The D-Rays look like a team that will lose a lot of games in the 8th and 9th inning, as no one seems to be a major league closer. When journeyman pitcher Dan Miceli looks to be your most capable guy to end games with, it might be time to search the Triple-A rosters for closers to trade for. How you can go into the season thinking Chad Orvella is the answer is pretty hard to understand. Oh yeah, they're the Devil Rays.