2009 MLB Preview: AL EAST
If MLB divisions were known as Bowl games, the American League East would be the ‘Granddaddy of Them All’. Not because it is the oldest, but purely based upon notoriety and the fact that the AL East has won more World Series than any other division with an astounding 38 titles.
This year’s race should be a classic as the Yankees brought in C.C. Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett, the Red Sox seemingly got healthy with a side of depth, and the Rays have a phenom biding his time in Durham until they feel the need to call upon his services.
From the outside looking in, the Blue Jays and Orioles both appear to be gaining ground in their seemingly never-ending quest to be deemed somewhat respectable.
But I’m not buying it – not yet.
The winner of this division will immediately become a World Series favorite; so who wins?
5) Toronto Blue Jays
You want the shimmy on the Blue Jays? They are going to stink. Again. But it’s not their fault, they play in the toughest division in baseball.
On the other hand, perhaps the reason the Blue Jays would have a better chance of figuring out how not to get whipped with a dipstick by this love-able Irish chap, than winning the East is pitching.
Roy Halladay has proved to be one of the most dependable, “what you see is what you get” front of the rotation starters over the past few years. After Halladay? Nothing. Not a single stallion in the stable. Jesse Litsch is decent, but certainly not what a team would want to call their No. 2 starter. David Purcey, Ricky Romero and Scott Richmond have as close to no upside as you can get.
As for the lineup, Vernon Wells is on the wrong side of 30 and while still a good player, he is nowhere near the star he once was. Alex Rios is now “The Guy” north of the border and I can’t shake the feeling that he is going to end up as one of those players that could have, should have, but never quite did, in terms of reaching his former budding potential.
On the other hand he just turned 27 years old, so maybe the jury is still out on this one.
At least there is one diamond in the rough, 21-year-old left fielder Travis Snider. The left handed slugger is ranked as Baseball America’s No. 6 prospect and slammed 50 home runs in 305 minor league games.
It’s just too bad Snider is going to be playing for a team that will likely have very little chance of competing in the coming years.
-Roy Halladay: Can Elasto Man become Super Man as well? Did I just make up the name Elasto Man? I’m not sure, I’m not a comic buff and I’m not looking it up. Let it ride.
-Travis Snyder: Watching this kid develop will be the only thing that may influence me to watch Blue Jays games this year.
-Alex Rios: Can’t be trusted to lead a team, real or fantasy. Do you have him on yours?
-Scott Downs: The season is just getting started and he is already in the process of taking over for lame-duck closer, B.J. Ryan. If I can change, and you can change… everybody can change! Scott Downs is a true-blue Rocky fan. What can I say?
TEAM GRADE: D-
4) Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles may be on the shallow end of the pitching pool, but they have developed an outfield budding as bright as the first day of spring.
Nick Markakis is the best young outfielder no one watches. Why should you he plays in Baltimore. I’ll tell you the why you should watch; Markakis is legit. A great player on a cruddy team.
Adam Jones and Felix Pie are just going to be outstanding, one of a kind… ok I can’t keep that up. It’s possible I may have been a bit over-the-top in my outfield gushing. there is a reason both Jones and Pie were traded to the O’s; their major league development has been taking longer than expected.
In particular Jones, has upped his stats a little bit each year, but check the tape, if you expect anything more than a 15/15 season with an average of .280, check with your physician, you may be out of your mind.
Wait a minute, I’m five paragraphs into my Baltimore breakdown before finally mentioning Matt Wieters?
That’s what happens when you play for the Orioles. Get used to it Matt, you and Travis Snider will have something to talk about when the Orioles play the Blue Jays.
It’s a shame. Just a shame.
-Nick Markakis: You know him, you just don’t watch him. Start watching him.
-Jeremy Guthrie: Your 2009 ace of the Orioles. Let’s hope that didn’t just make Baltimore fans poop a little.
-Matt Wieters: Why is he in the minors? Would the O’s have a shot at finishing higher than forth if he wasn’t? That’s why he isn’t up.
-Chris Ray: Speaking of out of your mind, I feel like I’m out of mine. When will Baltimore man-up and demote George Sherrill for Ray? Not soon enough, the guy has been electric this spring.
TEAM GRADE: D
3) New York Yankees
Whoa… how can I pick the team that monopolized the free agent market this off-season to not only lose out on the division, but miss the playoffs as well?
It’s quite simple really and it’s all in the numbers.
First and foremost disregard all “C.C. Sabathia was too taxed last season to pitch effectively this year” talk. The man is a horse and should be able to stay on the mound. The better question is will the pressure of his contract get to him, by forcing him to over-throw for the first month?
A.J. Burnett is a completely different story. In the last six years Burnett has surpassed 30 starts twice. Both times were contract years. Regardless of whether or not you buy into a player like Burnett giving his all only in a contract year (this obviously isn’t one), the smart money is on 2o starts or less for him.
Andy Pettitte may be even less reliable. Not in terms of health, but effectiveness. Over the past three seasons Pettitte has averaged an ERA of 4.26 and a WHIP of 1.43. Does that sound good to you?
Chien-Ming Wang played in only 15 games last season due to a foot injury. He also has a career K/9 of 4.03. That’s not good people. Are strike outs everything? No, but they do help the cause.
To make matters worse, the Yankees can’t seem to make up their mind with Joba Chamberlain. Odds are they attempt to stick to the original 150 innings cap they set at the beginning of spring, but they have also hinted at a potential 30 starts. If they want to contend for the division, the Yanks need Joba to pitch as effectively and as deep into games as a No. 2 starter. Can he handle the work load though? And can the bullpen handle it if he can’t?
The outfield is an out-right mess. Johnny Damon, Brett Gardner and Xavier Nady aren’t going to get it done in a division this good. Damon is a decent hitter, with slightly above average speed and a noodle-arm. Gardner is super-fast, whoopty doo, so is Juan Pierre. Nady wasn’t good enough for the Padres, and he wasn’t good enough for the Pirates, so how is he going to be good enough for the Yankees?
We all know A-Rod will miss time after his hip surgery, but how much time? Will he be returning by mid-May as rumored? The last thing New York wants to do is let him rush back, get hurt again, and see five months of Cody Ransom at third.
Mark Teixeira was a great addition, but Robinson Cano hit .271 with an OBP of .305 in 2008 and Derek Jeter’s stolen bases, runs, RBI, home runs, batting average, and OPS have all been in a steady decline the past three seasons. He turns 35 in June. Can New York really expect a significant bounce-back year from him?
Ultimately the Yankees spent too much money on three players this offseason, and quite simply won’t have the gas in the tank to catch the Red Sox or Rays.
-C.C. Sabathia: And he thought he had to carry the Brewers. HA! Wait til the Yanks are 10-back in August, then he will feel the weight of a franchise.
-A-Rod: I don’t like him and neither do you. But that’s because you aren’t a Yankees fan… or the devil. You aren’t, are you? If so, don’t e-mail me. It’s not my fault your team will under-perform again.
-Joba Chamberlain: New York needs 200+ strong innings out of this kid. They aren’t going to get them. If they do it may be at the risk of his future.
-A.J. Burnett: If I set the over/under on his 2009 starts at 25 you’d have to take the under right? Is there anyone out there who wouldn’t?
TEAM GRADE: B
2) Boston Red Sox
Josh Beckett has re-morphed into a Cy Young candidate after an atrocious 2006. The only problem? Like A.J. Burnett, Beckett seems to get nicked up frequently. Though he seems to have finally gotten over the blister issues he formally faced in Florida, he did suffer an oblique injury in 2008.
Lucky for the Red Sox, they also have Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lester. You know your staff is good when if anyone from your top three could win the Cy and most people wouldn’t bat an eye. Brad Penny is like the root beer on Boston’s vanilla ice cream (either that or he just consumes an extraordinary amount of the tasty treats) as he touched 96 MPH on the gun this spring. Penny played in only 15 games with the Dodgers last year, but if the Sox get anything close to what Penny showed this spring, they will be more than happy.
And if Penny breaks down? Well, that’s where Clay Buchholtz and Justin Masterson come in.
The Red Sox are solid offensively around the diamond except at catching, where despite their best efforts to build a fort and hide it, Jason Varitek somehow managed to find them and con Theo Epstein into re-signing him.
David Ortiz could play as out-of-this-world as he did in 2006 and 2007 or as awful as 2008 and neither would surprise me. Ortiz is a great player, but he’s also 33 years old.
If you expect either Dustin Pedroia or Kevin Youkilis to win or contend for the MVP this year… well you probably shouldn’t be reading this blog. They are both excellent players but not THAT good.
No one in their right mind believes in J.D. Drew, but Jacoby Ellsbury and Jason Bay are dependable. And GOOD. Bay hit 31 home runs between Pittsburgh and Bostin, and Ellsbury stole 50 bases last season.
The real strength may be the bullpen. The Sox have four relievers (Justin Masterson, Manny Delcarman, Takashi Saito and Hideki Okajima) worthy of closing out a game in a pinch in addition to all-world closer, Jonathon Papelbon.
The Red Sox will be in the post season, but probably not as the division winner.
-Josh Beckett: Will the big man stay in the game? The Sox sure hope so.
-Kevin Youkilis: There is no chance Pedroia has another season like he did in ’08, but Youk might, and if Boston wants to take the division back from Tampa, he’s going to need to.
-Dice-K: He went 18-3 with a 2.80 ERA last year, and led Japan to the W.B.C. title this spring. Dice-K looked great, and could be poised for an outstanding season.
-Clay Buchholtz: I still think at some point this summer the Sox will have to turn to the youngster and toss him in the fire. Enough with the coddling, let’s see what the kid can do.
TEAM GRADE: A
1) Tampa Bay Rays
Instead of flipping a coin for the East crown I’m going with the team with slightly better starting pitching.
To back up my pick I’m going to have to admit to a little sandbagging in a recent auction draft I took part in. I said it would be foolish to expect anything more out of the next big thing, David Price (Baseball America’s No. 2 ranked prospect), than Clayton Kershaw gave the Dodgers last year.
In other words: great stuff, shoddy command and inconsistency.
Here’s the deal; while both Price and Kershaw have electric stuff, Kershaw wasn’t polished enough to succeed day in and day out last year – Price is. If he plays in four of the six months of the regular season, the kid will run away with the Rookie of the Year regardless of when Matt Wieters is called up.
James Shields (29 years old) and Scott Kazmir (25 years old) are both very polished pitchers whom any team would love to have heading up their rotation. Shields really turned a corner last year, as April was his only problematic month. He finished the year in lights-out fashion as he compiled a 2.08 ERA in September and October (regular season). His counter-part, Kazmir, started 2008 strong after an elbow strain sidelined him for a month, but really tailed off in the second half.
Fortunately even if Kaz limps to the finish again in 2009, the Rays also have Matt Garza (25 years old) and Andy Sonnanstine (26 years old) to provide some needed depth in a division with pop to spare in opposing lineups.
Did I mention David Price yet?
Ok, moving on; on offense the Rays have a beautiful blend of speed (B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford, Jason Bartlett) and power (Carlos Pena, Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton and Pat Burrell).
Upton and Crawford are already two of the top five or six outfielders in the AL (with Grady Sizemore, Josh Hamilton, Matt Holliday and Carlos Quentin being the others), and Longoria may be as good a hitter as anyone in the league.
Dioner Navarro upped his game, going from scrub to all-star in one year. He may not have much power, or speed for that matter, but he does swing at strikes and does an excellent job of putting the bat on the ball. Navarro hit .295 last year with an OBP of .349.
While the Rays bullpen isn’t quite as good or as deep as Boston’s, they had three relievers (Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler and J.P.Howell) step up with career years in 2008. Can they do it again?
I’m going to go ahead and pencil in closer Troy Percival for at least one extended stay on the DL this year, if not two or three. Still it is pretty amazing that after coming out of retirement in 2007, the 40-year-old is still chugging away and getting guys out.
When Percy goes down, the Rays fully expect either Wheeler or Balfour to take over without missing a beat.
-Evan Longoria: One thing is certain, the Rays cannot afford for Longoria to take a step backwards in his MLB development if they are to win the East.
-B.J. Upton: The center fielder has offseason shoulder surgery, but is very close to returning to action. He stole 44 bases last year but hit only nine home runs before slugging seven in the playoffs. He has plenty of power but will he show it this year?
-Scott Kazmir: Has looked good this spring and obviously hopes to translate that into the regular season. Kazmir has great stuff and should bring the heat all year… we can only hope it leads to more moments like these.
-David Price: If all goes as planned with the rotation, Tampa Bay won’t need to depend on Price to reach the playoffs. Even so, he is a huge bonus in terms of the high-end depth he brings, and he isn’t afraid to shine in October. He showed that last year, stepping in as the closer in his first season of professional baseball and shutting down the Red Sox in the AL Championship Series.
TEAM GRADE: A