Top 10 lineups: Angels the cream of the crop
Trio of Trout, Hamilton, Pujols is explosive; Tigers, Cards, Brewers can score big, too
The Super Bowl is over, Spring Training is mere days away and the time to make fatally flawed predictions about the 2013 season proper is drawing near.
But before we can make predictions, it's helpful to make assessments.
Today, we'll look at the top 10 lineups in baseball. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, we'll look at the top rotations, bullpens and defenses, respectively. And finally, on Friday, we'll identify the top 10 overall rosters.
Some of you are going to say some truly unholy things about me in the comments section, while some of you will agree with me, to the extent that I say favorable things about your favorite team. Just know that while I've consulted the numbers -- advanced and otherwise -- this is, ultimately, a subjective exercise. I encourage you to contribute your own rankings below.
With all that said, here are the top 10 lineups as we enter camp:
10b. Yankees: How do you fall from No. 2 in run production in the Major Leagues to this spot on this silly little list? Easy. Lose four of your top eight run creators to either free agency (Nick Swisher, Russell Martin and Raul Ibanez) or the ol' hip surgery/PED-reports combination (Alex Rodriguez). Toss in a captain (Derek Jeter) coming off ankle surgery and a center fielder (Curtis Granderson) whose production declined precipitously in the second half last season, and you open the door to scrutiny. Brett Gardner's return will help, as will Robinson Cano playing for his next contract. There's no telling what Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner can add at this stage of their careers. All we know is that the Yankees, on paper at least, don't look nearly as formidable as they did a year ago. But they do always seem to find a way.
10a. Red Sox: Yeah, I'm including 11 teams in a top 10. Sue me. Just seems right to pair the Red Sox and Yanks together to illustrate that they've both taken a dip. A year ago, the Red Sox were No. 1 on this list. In the time since, they've dealt Adrian Gonzalez and the injured Carl Crawford, and David Ortiz, while still productive, was limited to 90 games in 2012 because of injury. This winter, they've added Mike Napoli (a perfect fit for Fenway Park who will help them continue to crush left-handed pitching, provided his hip issues don't keep him off the field) and Shane Victorino (who had a terrible year). Give this team a healthy Jacoby Ellsbury, Ortiz, Napoli and Dustin Pedroia, and the runs will come in bunches. There are lots of question marks heading into the season, though.
9. Rockies: Colorado finished sixth in the Majors in runs scored (758) last season, and did it with Troy Tulowitzki on the shelf for all but 47 games. The emergence of catcher Wilin Rosario has lengthened an ample attack sparked by Dexter Fowler and guided by Carlos Gonzalez. A Coors creation? To some degree, as evidenced by the drastic home/road splits (and that's why I don't have the Rockies higher). But no National League team has averaged more runs per game than the Rockies over the past five seasons, and the runs will keep coming in 2013.
8. Reds: Cincinnati finally has a reliable leadoff presence in Shin-Soo Choo, who is entering a contract year, and that allows Brandon Phillips, who batted leadoff in the playoffs, to move down. Joey Votto was a shell of his former self when he returned from knee surgery last year. If he can get back to 100 percent, the Reds will undoubtedly look more like the team that led the NL in runs scored from 2010-11 than the team that finished 21st in the Majors in the runs department last year. But they'll need more of the same from Ryan Ludwick, one of the most pleasant surprises in baseball last season, and Todd Frazier, who now has a position -- third base -- to call his own.
7. Nationals: Two different Nationals offenses were on display in 2012 –- the one that put up just 3.84 runs per game in the season's first two months (ranking 25th in the Majors) and the one that averaged 4.81 runs from June 1 on (ranking fifth). Bet on the latter being the norm this year. Denard Span takes over the leadoff spot, allowing Jayson Werth to move down in the order. Bryce Harper should be more consistent in his second year. Ryan Zimmerman had arthroscopic surgery to address the shoulder injury that plagued him in '12. The Nationals have balance, speed and power -- all the makings of an elite offense.
6. Rangers: Texas finished first in the Majors in runs scored last year, with Adrian Beltre having one of the best seasons of his life. But it's difficult to imagine the loss of power provided by Josh Hamilton and Napoli won't be missed, in some measure, even in that ballpark, and even with the additions of Lance Berkman and A.J. Pierzynski. The possibility of Nelson Cruz facing a suspension over his reported involvement with performance-enhancing drugs is a big question mark, and Ian Kinsler's drop in production as 2012 evolved is a concern. The Rangers will need another big year from David Murphy, and they'll need big contributions from Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt when they arrive. This is still an elite lineup, but it might not reach the production levels of some recent years.
5. Blue Jays: The Blue Jays are loaded with both talent and question marks, and I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion have combined to average 68 home runs over the past three seasons. Can they reach that level in 2013? Jose Reyes is an elite leadoff man. Will that translate to the American League? Was signing Melky Cabrera, who is coming off a PED suspension and was a fourth outfielder just three years ago, a mistake? If Brett Lawrie is healthy, will he be the monster he was down the stretch in '11? Will Colby Rasmus ever reach his star potential? Big questions, all. But remember that before injuries began to ravage their lineup in mid-July last year, the Blue Jays were averaging nearly five runs per game. And they've certainly improved on paper.
4. Brewers: Any questions about Ryan Braun in the wake of his successful appeal of a PED suspension were answered convincingly in 2012, as he put together another MVP-type season. Aramis Ramirez effectively replaced Prince Fielder in terms of lineup presence, equaling Braun's 80 extra-base hits. Nori Aoki, who had an underrated rookie year, sets the table, and the Brew Crew's hope is that Rickie Weeks avoids the first-half woes that hampered them last year. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy had an .873 OPS last season. This lineup is an absolute handful.
3. Cardinals: The Redbirds' lineup includes five guys -- Allen Craig, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Carlos Beltran and David Freese -- who finished in the NL's top 20 in OPS last season, more than any other club. Craig is going to be a stud. Three players who entered 2012 with less than two years of service time finished the season among the top 10 in runs created per 27 outs. The first two were Mike Trout and Buster Posey, as you might have guessed, and the third was Craig (or as I like to call him, "The Wrench"). You can put the Brewers and Cards in any order you choose. I'm giving the Cards the slightest of edges because of their depth.
2. Tigers: Two seasons ago, the Tigers finished fourth in the Majors in runs scored with 787. Then they added Fielder, one of the elite power hitters in the game, and they scored ... 61 fewer runs. Naturally. Truth is, the injured Victor Martinez was really missed, and Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila and Delmon Young did not adequately support Fielder and Triple Crown winner and AL MVP Miguel Cabrera. So the plate discipline a healthy Martinez adds to the picture in 2013 is vital, as is the speed and presence of the newly acquired Torii Hunter. If Austin Jackson further proves to be the real thing in the leadoff spot, the Tigers can and should again finish somewhere in the top five in runs scored.
1. Angels: With Hamilton aboard, the Angels now have two guys who ranked in the top 10 in runs created per 27 outs last season (Trout finished first in that category). Oh, and they have Albert Pujols, who won't be going through the same adjustment issues he did at the start of 2012. Because of their ages, Hamilton (31) and Pujols (33) probably won't be the historically productive pair some fans might dream they will be, but there is little reason to believe an Angels team that ranked fourth in the Majors in runs scored last season won't again be elite. A big X-factor is Mark Trumbo, who disappeared in the second half last season. As it stands, I'll take the Angels' lineup over any other right now.
Honorable mention: The Dodgers still strike me as more sizzle than substance because they need a leadoff hitter and the jury is out on Carl Crawford and Hanley Ramirez. On measure, though, they'll certainly improve on the 637 runs they scored a year ago, perhaps by a considerable margin. ... The A's had the most productive offense in baseball in the second half last season. It's just difficult to sustain that level of output in that ballpark of theirs. ... The D-backs fell from the ranks of my personal top 10 when they traded Justin Upton. ... The Braves have eight starters 25 or younger. Lots of Uptons and upside. ... Thanks to the continued excellence of Paul Konerko and huge comebacks from Adam Dunn and Alex Rios, the White Sox ranked seventh in the Majors in runs last year. Can they repeat that?