AL approval ratings: Who's the best?
Editor's Note: We asked ESPN's baseball experts to offer their picks in eight different categories for the American League. ESPN.com writer Amy K. Nelson breaks down the final choices below. You can also click here to vote on your choice in each category.
BEST LINEUP: DETROIT TIGERS
A foregone conclusion, after the Tigers injected its already potent lineup with Miguel Cabrera and Edgar Renteria this offseason. Now Detroit boasts a lineup featuring seven All-Stars who collectively have been named to the Midsummer Classic 41 times. Other than the Yankees, the Tigers scored the most runs in the league last year. Now they add the 24-year-old Cabrera, a lifetime .313 hitter, and Renteria, a former World Series hero who hit .332 in 124 games last season with the Braves, into an order in which they'll be surrounded by last year's MVP runner-up Magglio Ordonez and Gary Sheffield. American League pitchers are on notice.
Honorable Mention: Yankees
BEST ROTATION: BOSTON RED SOX
Many are projecting Daisuke Matsuzaka as a breakout player (though not all of us, see below), and Matsuzaka's sophomore campaign will be key in our coronation of Boston having the best starters in the league. Add a healthy Josh Beckett (starting the season on the DL) and sage knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, and the defending champs are looking good. But they also have two young kids in Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, who haven't even combined for 170 innings in the major leagues. Both of their names were on the trade mill all winter, but here they are -- and the success of Boston's rotation could partly hinge on whether at least one of them can survive the full-season grind.
Honorable Mention: Mariners, Tigers, Indians
BEST BULLPEN: BOSTON RED SOX
The Red Sox score again, this time with possibly the best closer in the league in Jonathan Papelbon. The 27-year-old has a lifetime 1.62 ERA in 160 career innings and is a two-time All-Star. But Papelbon, who once had a fan throw him a prosthetic leg in the wild Fenway bullpen, is not the only one who pulls his share. Hideki Okajima enters his sophomore year and was one of the best setup men in the league, posting a 2.22 ERA in his first year as a pitcher in this country. The lefty also went 3-0 with a 2.45 ERA in 11 postseason innings. Rounding out the 'pen are Mike Timlin, Manny Delcarmen (the new setup man) and Kyle Snyder.
Honorable Mention: Indians, Twins
BEST DEFENSE: BOSTON RED SOX
OK, just one more. Boston's defense had three members rank among the top 10 in plus/minus in 2007. Manny Ramirez is always a wild card in left field, but he throws out a lot of runners. Jacoby Ellsbury will likely patrol center field and is considered a plus defender, and Coco Crisp, his backup for now, only enhances their defense. Throw in Kevin Youkilis, who played a near-spotless first base last year and won his first Gold Glove, and the Red Sox have a reliable group of defenders behind their pitchers.
Honorable Mention: Blue Jays, Mariners
BEST FARM SYSTEM: TAMPA BAY RAYS
The description should be left to the good people at Baseball America, whom we rely upon to help tell us the story of each organization's depth. It's no secret that Tampa tops this list; it has two of this year's top 100 prospects (Evan Longoria, the soon-to-be third baseman, comes in at No. 3 and left-hander David Price, the overall No. 1 pick in last year's draft, ranks No. 10). Add in right-hander Wade Davis at No. 17 and shortstop Reid Bragnac at No. 39, and that's four players in the top 40.
Honorable Mention: Red Sox, Angels, Twins
BREAKOUT PLAYER: HOWIE KENDRICK, Angels
.367. .384, .342, .369. Those are some of Kendrick's batting averages in the minor leagues since 2004. Last year, when it really counted, he hit .322, though a broken hand limited him to just 88 games. Now the 24-year-old is surrounded by even smarter, veteran players -- most notably Torii Hunter, who may relieve some of the offensive pressure. Kendrick's defense still needs work, but maybe those minor league numbers can one day translate into a batting title.
Honorable Mention: Delmon Young, Dustin McGowan
UNDERRATED PLAYER: NICK MARKAKIS, Orioles
When Markakis turned up in an Under Armour commercial last year, it at first was a little shocking. Yes, the company is based in Baltimore, and yes, that's Markakis' place of employment. But the unrecognizable 24-year-old right fielder is coming off a 161-game season, in which he hit .300 and improved his home run total (24) in front of sparse crowds. His defense is better than most give him credit for, and he has a good arm; some scouts even thought he'd get drafted as a pitcher. Instead, he'll be patrolling Adam Jones' left side all year as part of the rebuilding of Baltimore.
Honorable Mention: Aaron Hill, Blue Jays
DARKHORSE TEAM: TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Buried in the beast that is the AL East, the Blue Jays usually are mired in mediocrity; they're never compared to the Red Sox or Yankees -- usually the top two teams in the division -- nor are they competing for the lowliest, an honor that has gone to the Orioles and Rays (and still will). But this year, perhaps, the Blue Jays will have a little more fight in them, as long as Scott Rolen and A.J. Burnett can stay healthy, and closer B.J. Ryan can become healthy. Roy Halladay would be a star were he not pitching up north, and with Burnett they form a powerful top of the rotation. Add in Dustin McGowan, and the Jays' starting rotation is strong. Ryan isn't expected to start the year on the roster, but he should be back. Add firefly David Eckstein, Frank Thomas and mainstay Vernon Wells, and the Jays have a chance. That is, if the injuries can be limited.
Honorable Mention: Rays, Mariners
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com.
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