American League predictions: Royals return to defend crown, Astros appear to be best team in league

This is one of two MLB American League predictions. Read Co-Senior Sports Editor Jordan Grossman's predictions here

The Major League Baseball season will start on April 3 with the New York Mets facing the Kansas City Royals. To kick off the baseball season, I wanted to provide some predictions on who will make the playoffs, who will win the major awards and who will ultimately walk away with a World Series championship.

Let’s start with the American League playoff teams.

AL East: Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox had a disappointing 2015 season and decided to throw some money at their problems. David Price and his monster contract came to Boston to anchor a questionable rotation. In addition, the trades for Carson Smith and Craig Kimbrel assured a poor bullpen. Boston’s playoff hopes rely strongly on whether it can get solid production from its non-Price starters.

While the pitching rotation is a question mark, the offense is not. Boston sports one of the best offenses, even with aging Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez playing below-average baseball. David Ortiz, in his final season, is still considered an elite hitter. Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts are good hitters and if either Blake Swihart or Jackie Bradley Jr. can hit, the Sox will have one of the best offenses in the American League.

AL Central: Kansas City Royals

The Central is an odd division. I like the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians, but outside of that, I’m not a fan. With that, the Kansas City Royals, the defending champions, will have a chance to repeat and make the playoffs this year. Kansas City brings back most of their offensive pieces, led by Lorenzo Cain. Losing veteran Ben Zobrist will hurt, but retaining Alex Gordon was key.

The Royals don’t value starting pitching that much, often allowing their strong bullpen to pull them through games. However, the likes of Edinson Volquez, Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy and veteran Ian Kennedy can make strides with another year of experience and key offensive pieces being brought back. The pitching could be their Achilles heel, but I don’t see anyone in the division good enough to capitalize.

The Royals do have a couple interesting pitching prospects, too. After missing a season, Kyle Zimmer will come back to the high minors with a chance to start. Miguel Almonte is the other prospect.

AL West: Houston Astros

The Astros are the best team in the American League.

They have the perfect combination of offense, defense, pitching and prospects. The Astros bring back 2015 Cy Young award-winner Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers, Collin McHugh and two solid backend pitchers in Scott Feldman and Doug Fister. They brought back Tony Sipp to help the bullpen and traded for closer Ken Giles from the Philadelphia Phillies.

Offensively, the trio of Carlos Gomez, Carlos Correa and George Springer will be fun to watch. All three could be top five players at their positions this season, including some MVP buzz for Correa. Jose Altuve is an elite second baseman and Evan Gattis, while awful in the field, is strong with the bat.

You never know with baseball, but man, this team has all the pieces with some minor league prospects who can come up and fill some holes if need be. Houston is a good first baseman – prospect A.J. Reed could be that man – away from being that dominant force in the AL.

AL wildcard No. 1: Cleveland Indians

I really don’t want to leave the Yankees or Angels out, but it is what it is.

The Cleveland Indians are really good. Probably the most underrated team in baseball, I think. Corey Kluber is an excellent starting pitcher, but it’s their depth that intrigues me – Carlos Carrasco is great, Danny Salazar always seems to be on the verge of a breakout and Trevor Bauer is a fine fourth starter. Cody Allen was the best relief pitcher/non-closer in baseball last season.

The question mark is the offense, specifically, can they be constant enough to win games. Michael Brantley, already hurt, finished top three in MVP voting two seasons ago, Jason Kipnis had a breakout season at second base two years ago, same for Yan Gomes at catcher. Mike Napoli has some pop left, but that’s it.

If the Indians can get one or two more hitters in that lineup, say, if Francisco Lindor can take the next step on offense, the Indians could push the Royals for the AL Central.

AL wildcard No. 2: Seattle Mariners 

And finally, we have the Mariners. I liked the Mariners last season and I love them this season. Funny how that works.

I’m buying Seattle’s pitching staff. Felix Hernandez, roughed up a bit at times last season, is still great. Hisashi Iwakuma is a fine pitcher acclimated to the ballpark and Wade Miley is a fine No. 3. They’ll need some value from one of their backend starters, though. Former top prospect Taijuan Walker seems like the best candidate.

Offensively, the Mariners got better. After playing several players at shortstop, the Mariners might’ve found their answer in Ketel Marte. Leonys Martin should provide value offensively and defensively in center. Nori Aoki is one of the more underrated players in baseball and should provide Seattle with a nice slap hitter at the top of the order.

Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager and Nelson Cruz will have to mash, but unlike the last two years, it seems like Seattle has better ancillary pieces around their stars.

I’m not picking them for the World Series, though. I learned my lesson.

Quentin Haynes is the co-senior sports editor and can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @HaynesTheWriter.