Rejoice, rejoice, the baseball season is almost here! In an attempt to quickly get some of you slackers up to speed on the year ahead, Big League Stewards Kevin Kaduk and David Brown look at a division, hold a conversation about the issues therein and then issue some predictions on standings and award-winners. Today we move eastward with a look at a loaded American League East.
David Brown: Mr. 'Duk, we've come to the division that's first among equals, especially if you report for a certain worldwide leader, the AL East. It's the division that only the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are "supposed" to win, because of money and divine right and so forth. And yet, for two of the past three seasons, the Tampa Bay Rays have wrecked just about everything by finishing first.
This season, you would be hard-pressed to find any Rays optimist so bold as to predict another division crown for Joe Maddon's cool kids. Carl Crawford(notes) jumped to the Red Sox, who also added Adrian Gonzalez(notes). Tampa Bay traded right-hander Matt Garza(notes) and shortstop Jason Bartlett(notes). It let Carlos Peña, closer Rafael Soriano(notes) and set-up man Joaquin Benoit(notes) leave via free agency. It's probably not uncommon to believe that these losses would cost the Rays 10 wins, perhaps more. Certainly enough to knock them from their perch.
The additions of Johnny Damon(notes) and Manny Ramirez(notes) might be able to help lead an attack that gives the Rays an improved offense in 2011. If they see reasonable improvements by Ben Zobrist(notes) and B.J. Upton(notes), and assuming that Sean Rodriguez(notes) and Reid Brignac(notes) aren't too weak, they could easily score more runs than they did last year.
Toss in a full season of Wade Davis(notes) pitching as he did down the stretch in '10, and Jeremy Hellickson(notes) starting 30 games, and there's plenty of reason to expect the starting pitching to be better than it was in '10.
Now, I look in the bullpen and I don't see the reflection of an optimistic person staring back. The settling force that Soriano provided -- there's nobody who can pitch that well. Kyle Farnsworth(notes)? They're seriously relying on Kyle Farnsworth? Rookie Jake McGee(notes) is looking good, and J.P. Howell(notes) will get some outs, but it's going to be white knuckle time in the final three innings. The Rays look like a contender -- until you get to the bullpen.
'Duk: Thanks for the vine, Jonah Keri, err, Dave Brown! While I definitely appreciate — and possibly even share — your optimism about Tampa Bay's starting rotation, I can't possibly get behind any scenario that has Manny Ramirez staying healthy, B.J. Upton staging that full All-Star season we've been waiting for since 2005 or Ben Zobrist justifying that contract he signed last year after that crazy-good 2009 season. (Why yes, I am a bitter 2010 fantasy owner of Zobrist, why do you ask?) If you threw the Rays in any other division and I'd name 'em the favorite, but not in the AL East, where 27 outs is exactly that.
What I do find interesting, though, is that after all that money the Red Sox and Yankees spent on their lineups and bullpens, they end up having the opposite problem of the Rays and have no idea what they're going to get from their starting pitching (though they certainly have a few more dollars sunk into their rotations). The money the Red Sox committed to Josh Beckett(notes) and John Lackey(notes) last season was supposed to prevent this situation, instead they're a big part of the problem. (Thank God for Jon Lester(notes) and Beckett pitching while hurt last season.) As for the Yankees, it's CC Sabathia(notes) (the C's stand for consistently consistent!) and then anybody's guess. Does the strength of their lineups and 'pens really allow us the luxury of overlooking what they've got cooking on the mound?
DB: Well, who's mainlining poutine now, Mr. Extra 2 percent? It's odd, isn't it, that a team like the Yankees has all of the resources a boy could want and they're still holding open auditions in spring training -- with Bartolo Colon(notes) and Freddy Garcia(notes) the leading contenders -- for TWO starting pitching spots? It just goes to show you that you can't throw money at a problem and expect it to go away. Or that money doesn't always buy happiness. Or something money something.
They're seriously relying on competence from A.J. Burnett(notes), so it was a keen move on the part of Joe Girardi to name him the No. 2 starter. There will be no skipping him in the regular season like they did in the playoffs and every little stroke to his ego can't hurt. Phil Hughes(notes) is money and will only get better. They'll be fiddling with Nos. 4 and 5 all season. Colon will break down, or be bad, or both. Freddy Garcia will be OK, as long as the Yankees offense can keep ahead of him. And the Yankees offense seems loaded enough to me. They were pretty good last year and didn't even maximize production from Alex Rodriguez(notes), Mark Teixeira(notes) and the center fielder of the future, Derek Jeter(notes). They ought to score a bazillion runs. And if they have a lead with six or seven outs to go, Sori-Mo would seem to be a lock. The end of the bullpen, there's one area where the Yankees would seem to have the upper hand on Boston, no?
'Duk: Well, the Yankees brass would certainly hope so with the way they strong-armed Brian Cashman into giving Soriano almost $40 million. Quite an expensive cheer-up present for themselves after missing out on Cliff Lee(notes), wouldn't you say? Pair Soriano with Mo and the Yanks have another year of the ultimate luxury: Not having to answer any questions about their bullpen. I do like Boston's triumvirate of Bard/Jenks/Papelbon more than some, but there's no way you're giving anyone the nod over a pen with Rivera in it.
The one issue I have to raise with your Yankees yapping, though, is age and injury. Robinson Cano(notes), Jesus Montero(notes), Phil Hughes and Brett Gardner(notes) might be the core of future, but they're currently the only Bombers on the right side of 30. The sheer depth of their roster makes one injury here or there easy to overcome, but an epidemic that even approaches something like the Red Sox experienced in 2010 is going to mean lights out.
DB: The Yankees might be aging, but they're not going to be sent to the old folks home by September, 'Duk. They'll be able to hang just fine with Boston. You know, it's funny how Theo Epstein tried to rely on run prevention for one season, and things went horribly wrong and they only won 89 games, so he just had to go out and pick up a couple of superstars. Must be nice! But Kevin Youkilis(notes) back at his original third base -- how is that going to work out? They're throwing a little caution to the wind, I'd say. The Marco Scutaro(notes)-Jed Lowrie combination had better be able to move to their right. And Adrian Gonzalez better be the greatest picker ever at first base. Ah, rich team problems. Not that I want to sound too much like that Buck Showalter.
Speaking of which, have we talked about the Yankees and Red Sox enough yet? Does Showalter have anything to get excited about in Baltimore, or is he just going to have the Red Sox and Yankees games to look forward to? Could the Orioles actually win 80 games? And would they be taking a step in the right direction, or would it just be running in place more efficiently? With the addition of Mark Reynolds(notes), Derrek Lee(notes) and Vladimir Guerrero(notes), they've got a lot of sluggers. Maybe this can be a team Earl Weaver would be proud of? Lots of three-run homers at Camden Yards? Eh, eh?
'Duk: Baseball Prospectus has the O's pegged for 81-81 and I guess that would be just enough to end our mentions of Orioles Magic actually defining a losing tradition for the last 13 seasons. But they're going to have to slug plenty of those three-run dingers to get there, because I don't have much faith in that young pitching staff yet. Yeah, Jeremy Guthrie(notes) is a known commodity and maybe this is the year that Brian Matusz(notes) steps up and joins the group of elite AL starters, but you're also going to have to ask Justin Duchscherer(notes) to stay healthy (something that's already not happening) and that young crop of Jake Arrieta(notes), Brad Bergesen(notes), Chris Tillman(notes) and Zach Britton(notes) to make a jump in not only success, but innings. There's a bright future here, but it's hard to see it arriving this season.
What the fans in Baltimore should do — and perhaps I've proposed this before — is give our old friend Bud Selig a call and float the idea of creating a team of the AL East birds — the, uh O'Jays. Not only would you have the most harmonic lineup in the division, you'd have a competitive rotation once you throw in Matusz and Guthrie in with Ricky Romero(notes), Brandon Morrow(notes) and Brett Cecil(notes). Whaddya think?
DB: Wait, you're proposing some kind of ornithological contraction/bird gene splicing? Are you mad, 'Duktor? Baseball Prospectus really has the O's pegged for 81 victories, though? Does that mean they have the entire division being above .500? Because the Jays — at least until Brandon Morrow and Frank Francisco(notes) came up with sore arms — looked like 88-74 to me. Their top-three starting pitchers are gold, Jerry! Four, if Kyle Drabek(notes) progresses ahead of the curve. And they got a bunch of decent middle relief types in the pen. So they should be competitive on that end.
Their o-fence was surprisingly robust in 2010, but I'm not sure if they'll have enough for a repeat performance. The Vernon Wells(notes) trade did clear enough salary to buy Quebec a new hockey team — good job, GM Alex Anthopoulos! — but it also kinda left a gaping hole in the middle of the order. Juan Rivera(notes) and Rajai Davis(notes) in the outfield, eh? There's not a lot there. I'm confident that Travis Snider's(notes) bat will blossom at least twice as impressively as his Bugsy Malone Moustache, and I'm also a believer that J-Bau can follow up with at least ... 30 homers? And Aaron Hill(notes) will return to form, right? He's not a .205 hitter. I can't believe the Lyle Overbay(notes) era is over, but it sure seems like Adam Lind(notes) is ready to hit just as meekly. I'm just not seeing a Willie Upshaw-kind of guy over at first base/DH. A Fred McGriff. They need Fred McGriff, Kevin.
'Duk: Yup, the BP computers are tracking the Jays' flight at 76-86, so they obviously know that the Crime Dog is not walking through that door. But whatever the spreadsheets spit out, Blue Jays fans have to know that Anthopoulos has this team going in the right direction with the young arms that are about to blossom (Drabek, Zach Stewart(notes)) and prospects like Brett Lawrie(notes) waiting in the minor league system. No, this won't be the Blue Jays' or the Orioles' year for the umpteenth time in a row, but at least they're stocked enough to make things interesting while waiting for more.
OK, so I may or may not have said that last year as well. If there's anything this division always provides, it's a ready-made storyline.
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Predicted order of finish:
'Duk: 1. Red Sox, 2. Yankees, 3. Rays, 4. Jays, 5. Orioles
DB:1. Yankees 2. Rays 3. Red Sox 4. Jays 5. Orioles
AL East MVP
'Duk: Alex Rodriguez, Yankees
DB: Robinson Cano, Yankees
AL East ROY
'Duk: Zach Britton, Orioles
DB: Jake McGee, Rays
Note: We'll complete the rest of our previews starting next Monday.