JUST AS they reach the to-the-bedrock demolition phase of their rebuilding, the Astros are relocating from the NL Central to the AL West. You'd think this would be welcome news to the rest of the American League. Instead, Houston's new neighbors insist, the club will be the spoiler of contenders' dreams. Games against the Astros won't necessarily be easy wins—they'll be must wins. "At the end of the year, some team is going to look up and realize it played .500 ball against Houston, and they'll be kicking themselves," says one AL West executive. "You want to go 17--2, not 10--9."
Outside the division, AL teams will face the Astros six or seven times. "They're going to win 50 to 60 games," says A's assistant G.M. David Forst. "You just don't want them to be against you."
Generally, says Forst, "it's hard to pick out soft spots in the schedule anywhere in the American League." So it is unlikely that there will be a playoff team that materializes out of nowhere, as the Orioles and Forst's A's did last year. After a winter in which the traditional powers got worse (looking at you, Yankees and Red Sox) and the underdogs improved (welcome back to relevance, Blue Jays and Indians), there are few teams whose postseason participation would be considered a real surprise. The Astros, the similarly rebuilding Twins ... and that might be it.
"Everybody else is in there, yeah," says Yankees ace CC Sabathia. "Even Kansas City's getting better. Cleveland spent more than $100 million in free agency. This is one of those years when it's going to be tough, every series is going to be a big one, and there's going to be a lot of close games."
Rays manager Joe Maddon has a theory on what's causing the AL's parity beyond the advent of the second wild card and the luxury tax, which has traditionally free-spending teams like the Yankees and Boston trimming payroll to get under the $189 million tax threshold in 2014. "I believe the better drug policy has a lot to do with it," Maddon says. "Teams that do have a lot of money would be able to buy the better players based on some false statistical information, and they would artificially play at a much higher level than [small-market teams]. Without all that stuff present, the team that plays better wins on baseball abilities, not necessarily due to an inflated ability based on chemicals."
All the parity will make for intense competition off the field as well. That at least 13 AL teams view themselves as contenders should decrease their ability to fill midseason holes through trades. There will be far more buyers than sellers, with only so many Bud Norrises (the Astros' best starter, who will surely draw interest) and Josh Willinghams (the Twins' slugger who is similarly marketable) to go around. So when injuries inevitably strike, built-in organizational depth might emerge as a separator in the postseason race. For all of their stars, traditional powerhouses like the Yankees, Angels and Rangers lack it. Clubs like the Rays have it, especially with a seemingly bottomless well of young power arms. That is a major reason why that brilliantly run organization, despite a bottom-five payroll, is the favorite to represent the AL in the World Series. As long, that is, as the Rays have no problem with Houston.
How They'll Finish
Mike Trout, Angels
Say his numbers are 90% of what they were last year—he'd still hit .293, with 27 home runs and 44 steals. Now imagine that instead of slumping as a soph, he's an even smarter hitter. Scary.
Justin Verlander, Tigers
Last year's balloting was reminiscent of the years when NBA MVP voters ignored Michael Jordan so as not to get bored. Verlander is the MJ of pitching, a singular performer. He's the favorite.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Jurickson Profar, Rangers
Texas should find 500 at bats for the game's precocious top prospect, enough for the 20-year-old middle infielder to edge out the Rays' Wil Myers and the Indians' Trevor Bauer.
Robinson Cano, Yankees
In 2012 his WAR was second only to Trout's; without his bat the aging Yankees will collapse. They even felt the void during the WBC. "Things don't feel right without him," said outfielder Brett Gardner.
Yoenis Cespedes, A's
More impressive than his physical gifts were the adjustments he made in '12, his first year in the U.S. His strikeout rate declined from 25% in April to 14.7% in the season's final month.
Alex Cobb, Rays
His fastball is low-90s, but he struck out more batters in camp (28 in 252/3 innings) than any other AL pitcher. "His ball moves all over the place," says David Price.
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