New sluggers, Rangers’ bid for Series ring liven up AL 

click to enlarge Albert Pujols - GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO
  • Getty Images file photo
  • Albert Pujols

All you have to know about the American League in 2012 can be summed up in one word: Stacked.

Both premier free-agent first basemen bolted from National League playoff teams for the AL, which also imported a young Japanese right-hander to take over the role of ace for the team that lost the World Series the past two years. The team with the most-interesting talent hasn’t been to the playoffs since 1985.

And we haven’t touched on any teams in baseball’s division of death, the AL East.

Each night figures to be a heavyweight fight, regardless of the matchup.

Thank goodness for the second wild card coming into play this season, especially when you figure that there are six teams right off the bat that you have only five postseason slots for.

All eyes will be on Albert Pujols, who left the comfort of two World Series championships in St. Louis for the bright lights and big bucks of the Los Angeles Angels in their pursuit of dethroning the Texas Rangers. While the Rangers lost ace C.J. Wilson to the Angels via free agency, they reached deep into their pockets to pay for Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish, who Texas is hoping can help erase the memories of losing the past two World Series.

Speaking of strikes, the Detroit Tigers turned the bad break of losing slugger Victor Martinez to an offseason injury into the biggest surprise signing of the winter when they scooped up Prince Fielder. The Tigers figure to only modestly be pushed in the Central, but watch out for the young Kansas City Royals, who haven’t played postseason ball since ’85.

Most of the headlines, of course, will come out of the East, where the New York Yankees strengthened their starting rotation, the Tampa Bay Rays continue to be the underdog and the Boston Red Sox aim to erase a historic and stunning September collapse that resulted in a major shakeup.

2011 AL leaders

Batting average: .344, Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
Home runs: 43, Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
RBIs: 119, Curtis Granderson, Yankees
ERA: 2.40, Justin Verlander, Tigers
Wins: 24, Justin Verlander, Tigers
Saves: 49, Jose Valverde, Tigers

5 players to watch

Albert Pujols
“The Machine” will fit nicely in his first year in the Los Angeles Angels’ lineup, providing a major punch and leadership on a talented roster. The chance to DH provides the opportunity to rest while remaining in the lineup.

Yu Darvish
How quickly the Japanese import adjusts to life with the Texas Rangers — American food, Lone Star State heat — is just as critical as how his pitching repertoire translates. The acclimation seems to be going well so far.

Miguel Cabrera
Hitting in front of newly acquired slugger Prince Fielder will bump his stats higher, but it will be how Cabrera adjusts to moving back to third base that will be the biggest challenge for the Detroit Tiger.

Joe Mauer
The 2009 AL MVP seems to be at the same stage as his Minnesota Twins. The catcher was limited to 82 games last season by injury and he is in the early stages of a megadeal. Maybe the Metrodome wasn’t so bad.

Carl Crawford
A huge disappointment during his first year in Boston, an injury has already derailed the start of this season. The speedy left fielder is as dynamic a player as there is and the Red Sox need him to produce.

American League predictions

Division races

Analysis: Big-money moves by the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers make this a two-team race, but rotation questions at the top will be the decisive factor. As long as the Angels’ bullpen doesn’t collapse, L.A. holds the slight edge.

1. Angels
2. Rangers
3. A’s
4. Mariners

Detroit could clinch the division by Labor Day considering the rest of the division. Major injuries to the Tigers combined without breakout seasons in Cleveland, Kansas City or Minnesota are the only obstacles to a division repeat.

1. Tigers
2. Royals
3. Indians
4. Twins
5. White Sox

The window is closing for the New York Yankees and the acquisitions of Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda give the pitching staff a young counterbalance to the aging offense. Boston has a shot, but only if Bobby Valentine’s magic works.

1. Yankees
2. Red Sox
3. Rays
4. Blue Jays
5. Orioles


Wild card:
Red Sox def. Rangers
Division series: Yankees def. Red Sox; Tigers def. Angels
League championship series: Tigers def. Yankees
World Series: Tigers def. Phillies

MVP: Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox. His second year in Boston is when he takes over as the face of the franchise.

Cy Young: Dan Haren, Angels. The underappreciated right-hander will finally grab the national spotlight.

Rookie of the Year: Matt Moore, Rays. As he showed in the playoffs, this left-hander is unflappable.

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Steve Drumwright

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