From Basement Dweller to Respectable
The Rays once again start the season with no hope of challenging for the playoffs, but this could be the year they dig themselves out of the basement and threaten 80 wins (or at the very least a more modest team record of 71).
They have a solid one-two punch at the top of their rotation in Kazmir and the up and coming James Shields. They even go three-deep with sub 4.00 ERA starters with Matt Garza.
Their 2-4 hitters are Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena (coming off of 46 HRs), and BJ Upton (80+ RBIs and Runs in only 129 games).
Add to this the plummeting fortunes of the Orioles, and the Rays are a good bet to capture only their 2nd fourth place finish ever, and a reasonable threat to challenge the Blue Jays for third.
From Respectable to Contender
Lets go with the Mariners. As awful as their lineup looks (Richie Sexson and his Mendoza like .209 in the heart of it), they actually finished with 88 wins last year. Smoke and mirrors, I suppose. Does Erik Bedard give them 8-10 more wins? We say yes. Factor in the Angels starting the season without Lackey and Escobar, and the Mariners go to the playoffs, if only for a cup of coffee.
Contender to Champion
Among last year's playoff teams, the best chance for a WS ring is still the Red Sox. Their championship roster was not only kept in tact, but now their young guys who outperformed expectations last year (Ellsbury, Buchholz, Lester, and Pedroia) will be more seasoned. Pitching wins championships and the Sox are deep in their rotation as well as their bullpen. (This will especially be the case in the playoffs when the former is contracted at at the expense of the latter).
But since its boring to pick the reigning champ, let's consider the other options.
The Tigers, with their lineup that threatens to break records and an above average rotation with a front line starter in Verlander, seem the easy pick here. But their bullpen is shaky(Todd Jones closing, Zumaya and Rodney both nicked up), and maybe Sheff starts to feel his age, and...let's take their Division rivals instead.
Sticking with the pitching cliche we'll go with the Tribe, and in this case ride Sabathia and Carmona and a playoff' season's worth of experience. Their lineup is the same one that's scored 800+ runs each of the last two years. Plus, considering the likely anxiety over CC leaving, perhaps they'll feel the pressure and add a deadline piece; they have the farm system to be major players. So as long as Eric Wedge doesn't mess things up, we got the Indians celebrating for the first time since 1948.