AL teams' biggest spring training questions

The American League figures to be quite interesting this season, given some major offseason moves by teams like the Los Angeles Angels, Toronto Blue Jays and Kansas City Royals, who all failed to reach the postseason last year.

With spring training getting under way this week, let's examine a big question mark that each AL team will face as it prepares for 2013.


BALTIMORE ORIOLES: Is Dylan Bundy ready to be a big-time contributor?

An elite pitching prospect and the crown jewel of the Orioles' solid minor- league system, Bundy got a brief taste of big-league action with two appearances last September. It's likely that he'll open 2013 in the minors, since he has never pitched in Triple-A and has thrown just 16 2/3 innings in Double-A.

Although he's only 20, Bundy has shown remarkable poise and strikeout stuff. He mostly needs to work on commanding the strike zone after having issued eight walks in those 16-plus Double-A innings. It would be a mild surprise if he doesn't come up to Baltimore for good sometime around June.

BOSTON RED SOX: Can Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz bounce back to lead the rotation?

Last year, Lester slumped to 9-14 with a 4.82 earned run average. Buchholz was a mediocre 11-8 with a 4.56 ERA.

Prior to September 2011, Lester appeared on the verge of becoming a big-time ace. Buchholz showed the promise to be a solid No. 2 starter.

Both pitchers have no known physical issues, so let's give them the benefit of the doubt. Team attitude and morale has been an utter disaster since September 2011. Perhaps that will change under new manager John Farrell.

Talent usually wins out in the end, and Lester (age 29) and Buchholz (28) are too young and gifted to not bounce back.

NEW YORK YANKEES: Can newly acquired third baseman Kevin Youkilis rebound in new surroundings?

Originally believed to be roughly a half-season fill-in for Alex Rodriguez (hip surgery), Youkilis could end up being the starting third baseman for the entire season. A-Rod's Yankees future is up in the air after last month's published report tying him to the purchase of performance-enhancing drugs.

Youkilis is going to be 34 on Opening Day, and he's been declining for the past two seasons. Last year, splitting time between the Red Sox and White Sox, he batted a mere .235 with 60 RBIs in 509 plate appearances.

Expect Youkilis to be rejuvenated this year and bounce back to a degree. The days of being a big-impact hitter, though, are unlikely to return.

TAMPA BAY RAYS: Can Wil Myers live up to the hype?

The price was steep. Tampa Bay had to send dependable former all-star pitcher James Shields to the Kansas City Royals in a trade to acquire outfielder Myers, who was the consensus No. 1 hitting prospect in the minor leagues last year.

The transaction was most likely a successful one for the Rays, since payroll limitations would have probably prevented them from holding onto Shields beyond this season. To sacrifice one year of Shields, they obtained a potential cornerstone offensive player who will be under their control for a while.

Myers is probably major-league ready, but he's expected to open the year in the minors. When he eventually arrives in Tampa Bay, however, the 22-year-old Myers is expected to provide an excellent batting average and good power.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS: How will the team deal with the pressure of being regarded by many as a preseason favorite?

Despite winning just 73 games last season, the Blue Jays have become a chic pick to not only win their division, but also capture a world championship.

Adding R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle to the starting rotation is the kind of thing that will raise expectations, so Toronto looks like a championship-caliber team on paper.

Whether the Jays will develop championship chemistry, and whether their young offensive core that hasn't been in too many pennant races will be able to deliver under pressure, remains to be seen.


CHICAGO WHITE SOX: Will Tyler Flowers adequately replace A.J. Pierzynski?

Maybe the White Sox were correct for not breaking the bank to retain Pierzynski, who is 36 and almost certainly had his "career year" in 2012. Still, the Sox left Flowers with big shoes to fill.

Flowers was at one point thought to be one of the better catching prospects in baseball, but he's been underwhelming as a backup the past two seasons. He just turned 27 and has a career .205 average, with 12 homers and 107 strikeouts in 273 at-bats. The home runs look nice, but he swings and misses far too often to ever significantly surpass the Mendoza Line.

CLEVELAND INDIANS: Can Ubaldo Jimenez become a staff anchor?

What happened to this guy? He was a Cy Young candidate as recently as 2010, when he went 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA while pitching half of his games in Colorado. Last season, Jimenez was 9-17 with a 5.40 ERA for the Indians.

His strikeout rate has dropped and he's become much more hittable. In 2010, Jimenez allowed just 164 hits in 221 2/3 innings; last year, he surrendered 190 hits in 176 2/3 frames.

Since he's only 29 and believed to be healthy, Jimenez is still a bounce-back candidate. He's never had great control, even when he was at his best, so he's going to have to start missing more bats again or settle for being a bottom-of- the-rotation guy.

DETROIT TIGERS: Is Bruce Rondon ready to take over the closer's job and run with it?

Rondon fits the profile of the prototypical closer - high strikeout rate, occasionally unhittable stuff, but mixed in with bouts of wildness. He's 22, and he's only pitched eight Triple-A innings.

The Tigers let incumbent closer Jose Valverde (35 saves, 3.78 ERA in 2012) walk in free agency. He blew five saves in the regular season and was removed from the closer role after a blown save in the playoffs.

Rondon will likely get his chance to take over, and he has the chance to be dominant if he can get off to a good start. If he falters, left-hander Phil Coke could be a big part of a committee that might also include Octavio Dotel and Joaquin Benoit.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS: Can Shields and Ervin Santana improve the pitching enough for the team to contend?

Heading into last year, it seemed the Royals had the offensive potential to be a playoff contender but that young, unproven pitching would likely be their downfall. Well, that was only partially true. The Royals' 4.30 ERA ranked only 10th among the 14 American League teams, but the surprising thing was that their 676 runs scored were only 12th in the AL.

To answer the question: Sure, there's little doubt that Shields and Santana will improve the Royals' pitching fortunes. Shields will be the unquestioned ace, and Santana should at the very least provide innings.

It won't mean that much, though, if the young hitters like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas don't live up to their offensive potential.

MINNESOTA TWINS: Can the pitching staff count on Scott Diamond and Mike Pelfrey, who are coming off injuries?

Diamond is the team's de facto ace after finishing 12-9 with a 3.54 ERA last year, but he had a bone chip removed from his pitching elbow during the offseason. Ex-Mets pitcher Pelfrey underwent Tommy John surgery last April, missing all but his first three starts of the 2012 campaign.

Both pitchers have fine upside, but will they be healthy enough to start the season on time?


HOUSTON ASTROS: Will there be enough offense for the team to be competitive?

The Astros ranked dead last in the majors with 583 runs scored in 2012. Now they're headed to the American League, where they're forced to field a lineup with an extra offensive player - the designated hitter. This isn't likely to end well.

If the season started today, the Astros' lineup would potentially feature Carlos Pena, Jose Altuve, Tyler Greene, Matt Dominguez, J.D. Martinez, Justin Maxwell, Fernando Martinez and Chris Carter. The Angels and Rangers probably aren't scared.

LOS ANGELES ANGELS: Will the back end of the rotation be good enough?

One of baseball's most talented teams in 2012, the Angels remarkably missed the playoffs. They've had an interesting offseason, adding Josh Hamilton to bolster an already impressive offense. They'll surely be a threat to lead the majors in runs scored after ranking No. 4 last year.

The news isn't all rosy, though. The Angels let Zack Greinke and Dan Haren leave via free agency, and they traded Santana, who, despite a down year, had posted double-digit wins five times in eight seasons.

The new Nos. 3-5 starters figure to be Tommy Hanson, Joe Blanton and Jason Vargas. Hanson was a big-time Braves prospect who has had his moments but has never put it all together because of injuries. Blanton is an innings-eater who can be an adequate No. 4 or 5 but no longer possesses the upside to be anything more.

Vargas was 14-11 with a 3.85 ERA last year in Seattle. He could really thrive in a winning environment, but there's just as good a chance that 2012 was his career year.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS: Will Japanese import Hiroyuki Nakajima be an impact player?

Oakland needed to add offense to build on its surprising 2012 campaign. Since it had to adhere to its usual payroll limitations, it rolled the dice a bit and came away with the 30-year-old shortstop, who hit .311 with 13 homers in 136 games last season in Japan.

It's hard to know what to expect from the first-time major-leaguer, but it won't take much for him to out-produce last year's primary shortstop, Cliff Pennington (.215, six homers, 28 RBIs in 418 at-bats).

SEATTLE MARINERS: Who will replace Jason Vargas in the starting rotation?

It's been an interesting offseason for Seattle, which has added a decent amount of offense. However, the additions of Kendrys Morales, Michael Morse and Raul Ibanez have left the team with a glut of DH types.

Seattle's starting pitching has a chance to be pretty good, with Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Erasmo Ramirez and Blake Beavan holding down the top four spots in the rotation.

However, that leaves the likes of Hector Noesi (2-12, 5.82 ERA in 2012), Joe Saunders (9-13, 4.07 ERA), Danny Hultzen (5.92 ERA in 12 Triple-A starts) and Jeremy Bonderman (out of baseball since 2010, when he underwent Tommy John surgery) battling it out to be the fifth starter. Yikes.

TEXAS RANGERS: How will the team overcome the loss of Josh Hamilton?

The Rangers let Hamilton and Mike Napoli go in free agency, but they signed Pierzynski and Lance Berkman to try to help offset the loss in production.

While those two will help, the key to the Rangers' success could be top prospects Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt - especially Profar, who could really play a prominent role. The Rangers gambled a bit that their farm system was ready to pay dividends, and Profar will try to prove them right.

Jeff Saukaitis has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.