Texas Rangers' Corey Seager.

Texas Rangers' Corey Seager. Credit: AP/Godofredo A. Vásquez

The Rangers’ title defense is getting off to an iffy start. World Series MVP Corey Seager is hustling through sports-hernia rehab to be ready for Opening Day. Max Scherzer (back surgery) and Jacob deGrom (UCL repair) aren’t expected to return until midseason, at the earliest. And in addition, Texas pretty much let Jordan Montgomery walk, dismissing a stalwart October arm.

So why should the Rangers be feared for a repeat? Especially while playing in the same division as the constantly reloading Astros, no less? Well, the aforementioned Seager is near the top of the list, powering a steamroller that also relies on Marcus Semien, October hero Adolis Garcia, Jonah Heim and Nathaniel Lowe. The Rangers pounded other teams into submission a year ago, leading the AL in most offensive categories, and if they get that again — with Scherzer and deGrom due back — a rotation currently fronted by Nathan Eovaldi should be plenty to set up another strong push for October.

Of course, the Astros will be a considerable roadblock. And this could be the last season the band stays together with Alex Bregman (a Scott Boras client) heading into his walk year and 41-year-old Justin Verlander, back in his beloved Houston again, trying to prove age is just a number for the three-time Cy Young winner.

Verlander won’t quite be ready on time as he labored with a cranky shoulder all spring, but the Astros still have Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier to stabilize the rotation. Houston also enhanced its chances by upgrading the bullpen. The Astros already had a great relief corps, but now everyone moves down a slot with the acquisition of lefty flamethrower Josh Hader.

It won’t necessarily be a two-team race, either. The Mariners won 88 games last season, but missed the playoffs by a mere two, and return a stellar rotation that features Luis Castillo (3.34 ERA in 2023), George Kirby (3.35) and Logan Gilbert (3.73). Problem is, Seattle didn’t do much to improve around one of the game’s brightest young stars in Julio Rodriguez, a dazzling centerfielder good for 30-plus homers. If the Angels couldn’t win with Shohei Ohtani, what chance do they have without him? The only suspense left in Oakland is where the A’s will wake up in the coming years. Caesar’s Palace? Circus Circus? The In-N-Out burger parking lot off the Strip? Sounds like the plot for “The Hangover 4.”

Over in the Central, the Twins lost Sonny Gray and Kenta Maeda to free agency, a significant blow to their division title defense. The good news? The rest of the teams are in much worse shape. Minnesota should have a solid lineup core with Carlos Correa and Byron Buxton — health permitting — as well as one of the best bullpens in the sport, anchored by closer Jhoan Duran.

So who else is a threat in the division? That could depend on how long the Guardians plan to hold on to ace Shane Bieber, the 2020 Cy Young winner who is a pending free agent.

The Tigers signed Maeda and Jack Flaherty to put behind last year’s breakout lefty Tarik Skubal (2.80 ERA). Their promising group of youngsters (Spencer Torkelson, Parker Meadows, Colt Keith) could provide an edge in a division where the margins are thin. As for the White Sox, they lost 101 games last season, traded Dylan Cease to the Padres two weeks before Opening Day and are looking for a new stadium.

In the East, with the public outcry over the Yankees needing another starting pitcher, the subtraction of reigning AL Cy Young winner Gerrit Cole (elbow inflammation) for the first two months of the season — and possibly longer — did not have them trending in the right direction on the eve of Opening Day. What’s left certainly doesn’t feel like a championship-caliber rotation, with questions swirling around Marcus Stroman, Nestor Cortes, Clarke Schmidt and $162-million mystery man Carlos Rodon. Having Juan Soto will help, and expect a career season in his walk year with $500 million hanging in the balance. Aaron Judge already showing cracks in March is certainly an ominous sign, however.

If the Yankees continue to have health concerns, that opens the door wider for the Orioles, who claimed the East last season with 101 wins and stepped up to trade for Corbin Burnes a week before spring training. As if Rookie of the Year Gunnar Henderson and Adley Rutschman weren’t enough in the young guns department, Baltimore also is expected to welcome slugging infielder Jackson Holliday soon. That’s the type of prospect core that can build a dynasty. The O’s just have to win a playoff series first. They were bounced in the first round a year ago.

The Blue Jays used to be the East’s “It” team. Now Toronto, after three straight wasted wild-card berths, is facing a ticking clock with the franchise’s two biggest stars, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, heading into their walk year. The Jays had a grab-bag of a winter, headlined by a string of DH candidates: Justin Turner, Daniel Vogelbach and Joey Votto. Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Eduardo Escobar are north of the border, too.

As for the Rays, a team bizarrely adept at bucking the small-market odds, they’re increasing the level of difficulty this season, with three starting pitchers sidelined for a prolonged period due to injuries — Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen, Jeffrey Springs — after trading ace Tyler Glasnow to the Dodgers. Then there’s the curious case of Wander Franco, whose future is unknown only two years into his 11-year, $182 million contract due to allegations of improper conduct with a minor in the Dominican Republic.

Wait a second. Feels like we’re forgetting someone. Oh right, the Red Sox, whose biggest offseason move was signing Lucas Giolito to a two-year, $38.5 million contract, only to have him suffer a UCL tear in spring training, requiring surgery and wiping out the ’24 season. It’s back to the cellar for the Sox again.

AL power rankings to start 2024 MLB season

(with projected 26-man payrolls, via fangraphs.com)

  1. Astros $240 million
  2. Yankees $297 million
  3. Rangers $220 million
  4. Orioles $97 million 
  5. Mariners $139 million
  6. Blue Jays $236 million
  7. Rays $99 million
  8. Twins $128 million
  9. Guardians $97 million
  10. Tigers $110 million
  11. Red Sox $180 million
  12. Angels $174 million
  13. Royals $116 million
  14. White Sox $145 million
  15. Athletics $61 million

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