AL Pennant Race: 5 Players Who Will Make A Difference

Travis Hafner, Cleveland Indians

Last year, the Cleveland Indians won 96 games, and Travis Hafner had an awful season. This is a scary fact that American League teams have surely been thinking about over the winter.

Ok, so maybe an “awful” season for Hafner is something that Russell Branyan would settle for. However, Tribe fans are long past the days of Russell ‘The Muscle’. The man affectionately known to Tribe fans as “Pronk” endured a disappointing season that fell well short of his outstanding 2004, 2005, and 2006 campaigns. From 2004-2006, Hafner averaged the highest OPS in the American League, at 1.031. Hafner has been surrounded by talented hitters in the Indians lineup including Grady Sizemore, Victor Martinez, and Ryan Garko. While few would argue that Sizemore is the most complete offensive player on the team, it is clear that Travis Hafner has the on-base and run producing abilities to impact the Cleveland lineup more than any other guy on the roster. The slugging DH figures to play a prominent role in Cleveland’s offensive attack this season. While the struggles of aces C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona in the ALCS undoubtedly led to the disappointing loss to the Red Sox (I fight back tears as I type), the Indians’ most glaring weakness last season was, unexpectedly, scoring runs. The team suffered from long droughts and never ran off hot streaks like many people expected. Hafner hit just .266 with an OBP of .385 and a SLG % of .451. These are by no means “awful” numbers. However, consider the .266 AVG in contrast to an average batting average of .308 the previous three seasons, and the .385 OBP coming on the heels of a season in which he led the league with a .439 OBP and .659 SLG %. If Hafner is able to rebound and put up the numbers that fans and Fantasy Baseball lovers had come to expect from him, the American League could be in for a very tough challenge from an Indians ball club that is returning one of the youngest core group of players in Major League Baseball.

Jeremy Bonderman, Detroit Tigers

One of the more perplexing pitchers in baseball, Jeremy Bonderman has shown flashes of brilliance. He’s developed his slider into a deadly weapon. We already know about Bonderman’s fastball, which consistently sits in the mid-to-upper 90’s. There are days where you’ll sit back and watch Bonderman pitch and wonder how to approach a team with two pitchers as talented as Justin Verlander, slated to start opening day for the Tigers, and #2 starter Jeremy Bonderman. Bonderman’s struggles are most evident in the season’s second half and, for whatever reason, the first inning. Last year, Bonderman went 10-1 before the all star break with a plethora of run support. The second half was a disaster though, as Bonderman went 1-8 the rest of the way and ended the year on the DL. In 2006, he seemed to have turned the corner, pitching into the 7th inning an astounding 13 of his first 17 starts. However, Bonderman only managed to accomplish that 5 times in his final 17 starts. For all of the hope and promise Bonderman has shown at times, the fact remains that he ended last year with an ERA over 5, taking a big step back from a somewhat encouraging 2006 season. With questions about Kenny Rogers’ age and injury risk, Nate Robertson’s talent, and Dontrelle Willis’ declining performance, the Tigers need someone to step up and help Justin Verlander carry the load. Truthfully, based off of track records, there’s the chance that this rotation could be very solid. But given pending league adjustments for Willis and injury concerns for Rogers, that doesn’t seem likely unless Jeremy Bonderman can become a consistent and reliable force at the front end of the rotation. The Tigers need Bonderman to show stronger focus out on the mound and avoid the big inning. With a questionable bullpen, at best, the Tigers cannot afford to fall behind in too many games, regardless of what their lineup is looking like. Bonderman has the talent. But it’s time to show up with the big boys now. This is a critical year for Bonderman and his future.

Erik Bedard, Seattle Mariners

The Seattle Mariners are my most intriguing team to watch in the American League this season. Sure, we’re all looking forward to the potential powerhouses of Boston, Cleveland, and Detroit. But manager John McClaren really showed something when he was able to sustain the surprising success achieved under Mike Hargrove before he shocked the world and quit midseason. The Mariners mean business, and showed why by acquiring LHP Eric Bedard from the Baltimore Orioles. Bedard qualifies as a “late bloomer”, emerging as an ace last season at the age of 28 with a 3.16 ERA, league-low 6.97 hits per 9 innings pitched, and 221 strike outs in 182 innings. The Mariners expect Bedard’s arrival to have a positive impact on the rest of the rotation. Felix Hernandez, still just 21 years old, will not carry the burden of the load for the M’s this year. Bedard will anchor a rotation that includes Hernandez, Carlos Silva, Jarrod Washburn, and Miguel Batista. If Bedard can build on last year, Seattle should be a dangerous team with a capable bullpen and steady rotation to go with a lineup that includes Ichiro, Raul Ibanez, Adrian Beltre, Yuniesky Betancourt, Jose Lopez, and a slugger coming off of a down year, Richie Sexson. Don’t sleep on this team that improved from 79 wins to 88 wins a year ago. In an offensively challenged division, look for Eric Bedard to flourish and really help the Mariners establish themselves as the favorites in the AL West.

Josh Beckett, Boston Red Sox

This may seem like an obvious choice, but Beckett is absolutely critical to the Red Sox’s chances in both the regular season and postseason. Without his dominating postseason, there was no way the Red Sox would’ve surpassed Cleveland. Since he was drafted out of high school by the Florida Marlins with the #2 overall pick in the 1999 draft, expectations have been sky high for the big Texas righty. His ascent to the Major Leagues came rather quickly, as he became a fixture in the Marlins rotation in 2002 and played a central role in the franchise’s second World Championship. Still, Beckett did not make 30 starts in a season until 2006 (33), where he appeared to be pitching at below full health and opposing hitters feasted on his flattened fastball. Beckett allowed 36 home runs and 114 earned runs in 205 innings of work. Consequently, the Red Sox missed the playoffs. In 2007, Beckett won 20 games and posted a career high 194 strike outs and career low 40 walks, finishing second to Cleveland’s C.C. Sabathia for the AL Cy Young. Most importantly, though, Beckett dominated in the postseason, going 4-0 and allowing just 4 earned runs in 4 starts, leading Boston to a World Championship. There’s no doubting Beckett’s ability. When he’s right, he has a blazing fastball with movement and a deadly, knee buckling curve ball. When Beckett snaps that thing, children weep instantly. However, there have been minor rumblings of injury concerns this spring training. The question with Beckett remains: Will he remain healthy enough to pitch like the ace that Boston needs? If he does, I see nothing about this team that makes me think they can’t repeat as World Champs.

Jorge Posada, New York Yankees

With Yankees management finally beginning to understand the necessity of getting younger and developing prospects, catcher Jorge Posada’s leadership role will be as important as ever in 2008. Posada, the emotional leader in the clubhouse for the Yankees, is coming off of a career year at the age of 35, setting career highs by hitting .338 with a slugging percentage of .543. With blood-rivals Boston looking as strong as ever, the Yankees must continue to be a dominant lineup. Posada is an integral part of the Yankees lineup and must have another strong year to help protect Alex Rodriguez in the batting order. The Yankees have a few question marks in the bottom half of their lineup with younger or more unproven players like Shelly Duncan, Melky Cabrera, and Wilson Betemit. Don’t be surprised if the Yankees lineup struggles more than we’re accustomed to seeing. With the expected drama surrounding Andy Pettite’s mention in the Mitchell Report, Posada can bring the type of leadership they will miss from Joe Torre and serve as a big bat in the middle of the Yankees lineup. As usual, the Yankees will likely need to out-slug teams this season if they are to make the postseason. But if Posada can help the young pitchers like Hughes and Chamberlain in their development, the process may go a lot smoother. With another strong all around year from Posada, the Yankees can still compete with Boston. However, they cannot afford a similar drop in production that other older players on the Yankees have suffered, like Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon. This team still has the big names, but that won’t mean anything if the veterans can’t sustain high performances. With no clear starting rotation established, it’s difficult to see the Yankees competing with Boston and AL Central powers Cleveland and Detroit if Posada cannot come close to repeating his excellent 2007 performance.

Honorable Mention: Grady Sizemore, Fausto Carmona, Ryan Garko, Fernando Rodney, Dontrelle Willis, Gary Sheffield, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jon Garland, Rich Harden, B.J. Ryan, Andy Pettitte

Explore posts in the same categories: Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees, Seattle Mariners

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

One Comment on “AL Pennant Race: 5 Players Who Will Make A Difference”

  1. […] We forgot to introduce a third person who will be a guest contributor for us. He already wrote a story for us. Ben is a passionate baseball fan, and possesses homerish tendencies towards the Cleveland […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: