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CTBNL: Why your team won’t win — American League edition

(Photograph by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire)

Knowingly glib pronouncements our specialty, salad bar $4.99 extra. Negativity is given freely; the conceit here is that by the time you’re done you’ll believe that no one can win.

  • BALTIMORE ORIOLES

They have something like six corner outfielders/first basemen and one healthy starting pitcher of any note, two if Chris Tillman is revived. Their starting lineup has five players 31 or older. High-value replacements are few. If you survey the 145 players listed by Baseball America as the top five prospects in the 29 other organizations, 45, or 29 percent, originated in Latin America; the Orioles apparently don’t shop there. Despite his personal presence and authority, 25 years into his major-league managerial career, it’s not clear that Buck Showalter is the manager to take a team across the finish line.

  • BOSTON RED SOX

Mitch Moreland fails to come close to making up for David Ortiz’s retirement, and his replacement, Sam Travis, doesn’t push them much closer. David Price and Drew Pomeranz are diminished by injury all season long and there’s just not enough pitching depth to make up for their absence. Pablo Sandoval doesn’t get back to 2011. He was 24 then; he’s 30 now. The catchers don’t hit at all. The bullpen, which has lost stalwarts like Junichi Tazawa (Marlins) and Koji Uehara (Cubs) as well as Brad Ziegler (Marlins) is soft behind Craig Kimbrel, who continues to struggle with his control. Injuries strike, and it turns out that the team’s immediate prospect depth is playing in San Diego and Chicago.

  • CHICAGO WHITE SOX

They’ve traded a great deal and with Todd Frazier, David Robertson, and Jose Quintana on hand, the wrecking ball has yet to finish its work. It’s going to be particularly ugly in the early going, but if Carlos Rodon continues to progress and pitching prospects like Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez start to filter in during the summer, the post-Chris Sale, post-Quintana rotation might even be pleasant to watch—but they won’t win… This really has nothing to do with the White Sox winning or not, but Matt Davidson is a 26-year-old third baseman on the fringes of the White Sox roster, and Matt Dominguez is a 27-year-old third baseman on the fringes of the Red Sox roster. Both hit right-handed. Davidson has hit .249/.333/.428 in the minors. Dominguez has hit .260/.320/.411. Someday there’s going to be a quiz on which is which and we’re all going to get it wrong and be held back.

  • CLEVELAND TEAM

The worst-case scenario: Between injuries and lack of impact hitters, about half the lineup doesn’t produce. Corey Kluber shows fatigue from pitching close to 250 innings last year; Andrew Miller requires a refractory timeout after throwing 93.2, the most he’s had since he was a starter. Michael Brantley never gets back to where he was two years ago. Giovanny Urshela does.

  • DETROIT TIGERS

They spent the winter saying they were/they weren’t rebuilding. Their owner died and it’s not certain if the resulting lack of urgency to win a championship, which wasn’t happening regardless, provided any clarity. Even if it did, they have some contracts that are almost certainly not moveable. Meanwhile, they have no center fielder, no catcher who can hit, and the farm system is, as has been the case for years, producing mostly rutabagas. There are still enough good players on the big league club that, barring a bunch of key injuries, the Tigers won’t be miserable, but their upside is limited by the positions at which they’ve decided to punt.

CLEARWATER, FL - MARCH 05: Daniel Norris (44) of the Tigers delivers a pitch to the plate during the spring training game between the Detroit Tigers and the Philadelphia Phillies on March 05, 2017 at Spectrum Field in Clearwater, Florida. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

  • HOUSTON ASTROS

Last season, the first basemen (.232/.299/.381), left fielders (.227/.283/.366), center fielders (.210/.270/.355), and designated hitters (.218/.299/.378) didn’t hit. This year, the first basemen, left fielders, center fielders, and designated hitters might not hit. In order, Yulieski Gurriel might turn out to be nothing special and A.J. Reed might once again fail to adjust to major league pitching. George Springer moves to center field, leaving Nori Aoki, Josh Reddick, Teoscar Hernandez, and Jake Marisnick to man the corners; Aoki is a league-average hitter at best, though he does subtract some strikeouts from one of the least contact-oriented teams in the majors. Reddick is a different guy every year, not all of them good. At DH, Carlos Beltran could play down to turning 40. The new catching platoon of Brian McCann and Evan Gattis could also be problematic: Over the last three seasons, McCann hit .225/.229/.359 away from Yankee Stadium. As for the pitching staff, if Dallas Keuchel can’t rebound, and if Lance McCullers can’t stay healthy, the starting rotation might not exist. The Astros have some ready minor-league alternatives in the outfield and on the mound, but they’ve demonstrated in recent seasons that while some players will make an easy jump to the majors (Alex Bregman) some won’t (Reed, Tyler White).

  • KANSAS CITY ROYALS

Alcides Escobar is still here. That’s it.

[Waits.]

Okay, there’s more. Yordano Ventura’s untimely death left a hole in the rotation that Jason Hammel and Nate Karns are going to be hard-pressed to fill. Danny Duffy aside, the Royals now have an old rotation that looks like it belongs in an Orioles uniform. For the 492nd year in a row AFW (After Frank White) there’s no second baseman; it can only be hoped that someone in the front office has discovered the humanity necessary to avoid rushing Raul Mondesi again.

For the rest of the offense to work, players like Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, and Alex Gordon must be healthy and productive at the same time, which never seems to happen. There’s a great deal of pressure on soon-to-be free agent Eric Hosmer, who is very close to achieving Gregg Jefferies status as a player who future generations will look at and wonder what all the fuss was about. The strange aspect to his season is that if he has a big season he’ll price himself out of the Royals’ plans, and if he doesn’t it will mean they can afford him but shouldn’t want him—at least not for anything beyond a pillow contract.

  • LOS ANGELES ANGELS

They look a lot like an expansion team. If the 1969 San Diego Padres had been able to acquire Willie Mays, they’d have been a decent analogue to the Angels, who have the best player in baseball, the still-potent dregs of another in Albert Pujols, and several guys who would be good complementary players on a winning club (Kole Calhoun, Andrelton Simmons, Luis Valbuena, C.J. Cron, Cameron Maybin) but are just killing time here. Catcher is still a problem; Martin Maldonado may make Chris Iannetta look like Mickey Cochrane. Last year, the starting rotation resembled your kitchen junk drawer. This year things could be slightly better, but it will require health and consistency from pitchers not notable for either.

  • MINNESOTA TWINS

At 59-103, they just missed having the mirror-image record of the 103-58 Cubs. The new administration of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine haven’t yet had time to put their stamp on the team. The big offseason move was signing catcher Jason Castro, a .215/.291/.369 hitter over the last three seasons, to a three-year contract. That’s hardly a shake-up.

Still, many things could be better: A whole year of Jorge Polanco at shortstop, an improved Max Kepler and Byron Buxton, a healthy-ish Phil Hughes. Maybe some of these things will happen, but all are unlikely. Perhaps Miguel Sano can maintain a fielding percentage over .900 at third base and won’t strike out over 200 times. Could be Brian Dozier repeats his career year and Joe Mauer can hit more than the .267/.353/.380 he’s averaged over the last three years. Here’s the thing, though: All those things could happen and the Twins still wouldn’t have the depth of talent to make the postseason. It’s going to be a long road back.

  • NEW YORK YANKEES

The killer 33-year-olds, Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Chase Headley (33 in May) continue to be “contributors” rather than “producers.” Gary Sanchez isn’t the same guy over a full season (it’s almost impossible that he would be) and Aaron Judge can’t hold on to the right field job, leading to way too much of Aaron Hicks. Starlin Castro continues to be low offense/low defense. The starting rotation after Masahiro Tanaka once again proves to be a myth. Whatever goes wrong, just like last year’s A-Rod and Mark Teixeira problems, management reacts too slowly to save the season.

LAKELAND, FL - MARCH 17: Masahiro Tanaka (19) of the Yankees delivers a pitch to the plate during the spring training game between the New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers on March 17, 2017 at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

  • OAKLAND A’S

Ugly patchwork teams don’t usually win. With one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, stretched regulars like Rajai Davis, Trevor Plouffe, Jed Lowrie, Matt Joyce, and Yonder Alonso, and Sonny Gray still ailing, this is a burgoo baseball team. That’s not to say there aren’t some positive things going on. There are; they’re just contingent. By midseason, Franklin Barreto and Matt Chapman could be ready to plug in at second and third base, respectively. While those additions won’t be transformational, the team will look like it’s leaning forward instead of just killing time. Say one thing for the A’s over other second-division teams: Their starting rotation isn’t filled with dead-end veterans. There might not be a future Tom Seaver in the mix, but everyone is under 30 (it’s the bullpen that’s ancient). They won’t win, but at least they’re exploring the future instead of the past.

  • SEATTLE MARINERS

When Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took over the Cubs, they turned over the whole roster. Dipoto is in the process of accomplishing something similar, but a key difference, one that awaits the future insofar as the Mariners are concerned, is the Cubs renaissance was sped along by smart drafting: Epstein’s first four first rounds brought Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Ian Happ.

Conversely, the Mariners haven’t hit in the first round since Adam Jones in 2003. In fairness to Dipoto, none of those drafts were his; he’s had just one. Last June the Mariners plucked outfielder Kyle Lewis with the 11th-overall pick. He got off to a great start, then tore his ACL in a collision at home plate. It’s somewhat troubling that Dipoto’s baseball operations staff, including many responsible for the draft, have been with the organization for years. With his many trades, Dipoto has certainly displayed audacity, and the lineup certainly looks deeper than it was last year. Thing is, it wasn’t terrible then, finishing third in the league in runs per game.

It was the pitching staff that was mediocre, and Dipoto hasn’t solved that problem in one offseason. If Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma are in the process of aging out, as they might have indicated last season, things could get worse before they get better.

  • TAMPA BAY RAYS

If the Rays can keep their team healthy, it would be a mistake to dismiss them. The offense is a mélange of homegrown stars like Evan Longoria and Kevin Kiermaier and other team’s castoffs (how many failed Mariners can one team have?), but many of those guys can hit. That they can hit enough individually or as a group is a different matter; this team would look very different with just one more on-base threat somewhere in the lineup. Shortstop Willy Adames took 74 walks at Double-A last year, so maybe he’ll be that guy later in the season, and if not him then first baseman/outfielder Jake Bauers, who took 73 (and has killed the ball this spring) at the same level. Catching is a hard pass until Wilson Ramos is healthy. The starting pitching could be very solid, particularly if Chris Archer rebounds and Alex Cobb can come back strong after losing most of two years to Tommy John surgery. It’s always questionable if the Rays can keep their team together, but if they can just hold on to their assets, next year looks a lot better than this one.

  • TEXAS RANGERS

Starting pitching after Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels remains conceptual. Giving major responsibility to Carlos Gomez is a gamble given 2014 was a long time ago. You can make a similar statement about Jurickson Profar, the never-ending prospect, except that you have to go back further, to 2012 or 2013. He may be the Zeno’s Paradox of ballplayers, drawing ever closer but never arriving. Ready prospects are plenty, but they belong to other organizations, having been traded for veterans.

Most of those vets have performed well for the Rangers, but it’s worth noting that Yovani Gallardo was one and done, leaving as a free agent, and Jonathan Lucroy, still unsigned long-term, could also turn into nothing more than an extended rental. The offense needs Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli to stave off old age for another year and Nomar Mazara to grow into additional power and consistency. Twenty home runs in the major leagues is impressive for a 21-year-old, but only 13 doubles was just weird—there are a few too many grounders in Mazara’s swing just now.

  • TORONTO BLUE JAYS

Last July, the Jays signed first baseman Justin Smoak to two-year contract extension with an option for 2018. He received about $4.1 million a pop. He must be an incredible guy to have in the clubhouse, because a platoon first baseman with career averages of .224/.316/.403 against right-handed pitching could overwhelm your antidepressants if he didn’t contribute something intangible to counteract all those outs. In an offseason in which power hitters were begging for work, the Jays’ decision to stick with Smoak as the long side of a platoon with Steve Pearce was pretty strange.

That’s not the only reason they won’t win, but it’s a big one, along with downgrading from Edwin Encarnacion to Kendrys Morales and failing to find a left fielder better than Ezequiel Carrera. The pitching and remaining offense should be good enough to keep them in the thick of things, but oh, it could have been so much better.

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