Yankees team to beat in AL

American League preview

Action in the American League is set to commence with all three of last year’s division winners entering as odds-on favorites to repeat in 2020.

The Yankees in the East are at 2-5, with the Twins at 5-7 in the Central and Astros at 5-7 in the West. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy for them, for there’s at least one other playoff-savvy team in each of the divisions.

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With the reduced 60-game schedule this season, no team should be counted out. Not even the Orioles, who apparently have had wave of backers to cause their division odds in the East to drop from an opening 5,000-1 to 50-1. In the Central, the Tigers opened at 2,000-1 and are also now 50-1. 

Here’s a look at how the division races should unfold, including long shots that might be worth a look. The odds are courtesy of the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook:

EAST

With standout RHP Gerrit Cole on board in New York, the Yankees (7-4 pennant/4-1 World Series) are indeed the team to beat, followed closely by Tampa Bay (7/16) and not so closely by Boston (20/40).

Cole, 20-5 last year with Houston with an MLB-high 326 strikeouts, is the new staff headliner for a team that oozes power, led by Aaron Judge, who had two towering homers Sunday night.

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Last season, New York won the division by seven games despite a record-high 30 players on the injured list. Thus, this year’s team has lots of experienced, quality depth.

Tampa Bay, 96-66 in 2019 after winning 90 a year earlier, ended a five-season playoff drought and reached the division series before succumbing to Houston 3-2. That experience was no doubt invaluable, but can the Rays continue to overachieve? They had 12.5 victories above their win expectancy in 2018 and 6.5 above last season.

The offense probably will be the reason if the Rays struggle. They scored 174 fewer runs than the Yankees last season.

It’s hard to make a case for the Red Sox after they traded Mookie Betts, who was the AL MVP when Boston won the 2018 World Series. Toronto (100/200) is intriguing with slugger Vlad Guerrero Jr., relief ace Ken Giles and ex-Dodger LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu, who was the NL ERA leader in 2019. Regardless of where they call home, the Jays should be in the running for the second wild card and catch either the Rays or A’s.

CENTRAL

The Indians opened as the favorite to win the division for the fourth time in five years, but lost the offseason to Minnesota, which finished eight games clear of Cleveland last year.

Minnesota should win the in-season, too.

The Twins (7-1 pennant/16-1 WS) hit a major-league record 307 homers last season and have since added vet Josh Donaldson, who had 37 for Atlanta in 2019. Minnesota also bolstered its pitching staff with ex-Dodger RHP Kenta Maeda to join the formidable duo of RHPs Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi.

Cleveland (10/25), meanwhile, sent ace RHP Corey Kluber to Texas and let vet second baseman/outfielder Jason Kipnis walk in free agency. This smells like a team not built to win now and could well unload standout shortstop Francisco Lindor at the trade deadline after long-term contract talks reportedly came up empty.

Chicago (12/30) has a lot of young prospects, including shortstop Tim Anderson, who won last year’s AL batting title at .335. And they acquired former Astros star right-hander Dallas Keuchel to join opening-day starter Lucas Giolito. But on a down note, highly touted pitching prospect Michael Kopech opted not to play this season.

Detroit and Kansas City? Not this year.

WEST

Houston, which won the loop by 10 games last season, is in search of its fourth straight West title and third pennant the past four seasons. The Astros (5-1 pennant/ 12-1 WS), who fired manager AJ Hinch in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal, surely will be receiving a break with no fans in the stands to resume the heckling they received in March.

Provided enemy pitchers don’t use Astros hitters such as Alex Bregman as target practice, manager Dusty Baker should have the horses to take the division flag, especially if veteran RHPs Jason Verlander and Zack Grienke stay healthy. 

In the rear view mirror is Oakland, coming off its second straight 97-win season, which culminated with back-to-back wild-card defeats. If the A’s (9/20) can repeat last year’s offensive exploits when they had a franchise-record 257 homers, they have enough pitching to make it a tight race. But they’ll still probably fall short.

In L.A., the Angels (10/25), who opened as 100-1 WS choices, have to be cringing at the thought that Mike Trout, whose first child is due this summer, could opt out at the first sign of virus trouble in the clubhouse. Texas (40/80) has possibilities and would be a fun futures wager, especially with a stout staff that includes Kluber, Lance Lynn and All-Star lefty Mike Minor. Maybe next year the Rangers break through.

Seattle (150/300), which jumped to a four-game West lead last year with 13-2 start, only to collapse, is deep into a rebuild.