Big League Stew - MLB

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 will look at a division each day this week and hold a conversation about the issues therein. Up next is the AL East, which will host one of the most anticipated races in recent memory.

David Brown: OK, Kevin. We've conquered the Left Coast, National and American. We've exchanged lineup cards for the AL East, the official division of Major League Baseball, says ESPN. One thing seems evident: Someone's going to be very upset at the end of 162 games because not all of these "juggernauts" can make the playoffs. I see by your predictions you think the most jilted prominent someone will be our Rays. You have the Red Sox recapturing the flag and the $400 million in improvements the Yankees made in the offseason being good enough for second place. Explain yourself, 'Duk!

'Duk: Sorry Dave, but I'm sad to report that our Rays are going to be one of those unfortunate teams that scores a win total in the 90s, only to earn an October foursome where they'll also shoot in the 90s. It's not that I don't believe in Tampa Bay — I might pick them to take any other division in baseball — I just believe in the Red Sox and Yankees more.

DB: Someone who BELIEVES in the Yankees. Folks, please welcome Billy Crystal to Big League Stew. Well, Mr. Believer, I believe the Rays have the best player in the division, right now, in Evan Longoria. He hits the ball, he hits it for power, he catches the ball, he does it all. Another great thing about the Rays: None of their players topped out last year. Carl Crawford, he can do better. B.J. Upton, he can do better. The 14 guys in right field, they can do better. Same goes for Carlos Pena. And the pitchers, while I worry about the extra use from the playoffs (James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, this means you), it's not like they got career performances out of anyone on that staff. Except maybe Balfour. The rest of the Rays' arrows are pointing "up."

'Duk: So you're telling me that you had '09 > '08 tattooed on your neck shortly after snapping this Andrew Friedman photo in spring training? That's fine, but I would have stuck around to ask him about that bullpen. Perhaps Troy Percival and Jason Isringhausen will prove again to be ageless wonders, but I'm not sure the bullpen is deep enough to give the starters the slack they'll need after the long workload in 2008, especially if Kazmir continues to be allergic to the sixth inning.

Look, it's hard to pick a lot of nits with such a talented Rays roster, but I still like Boston's lineup and rotation more. MVP candidates Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis produce the same type of homegrown talent that the Rays have and David Ortiz says his wrist issues are merely a memory. Then there's your old pal Rocco "The Woonsocket Rocket" Baldelli, who gives the Carmines some much-needed outfield depth and, of course, that great bullpen anchored by Jonathan Papelbon and Hideki Okajima. Add John Smoltz and Brad Penny to the MLB's best starting triumvirate (Lester-Beckett-Matsuzaka) and you have the makings of another memorable season at Fenway.

DB: We are picking nits, to some degree, because these teams were separated by two games in the standings last year and played a seven-gamer in the ALCS. But these Yankees are a pinstriped herring. I know they know how to spend money, but they got an old man leading off and lots of question marks otherwise for a billion-dollar operation.

'Duk: An old man leading off? I'm actually more concerned with the old man playing left field who Derek Jeter swapped batting order spots with, but I don't think there's any doubt the Yankees have improved on a roster that still churned out 89 wins last season. The switch-hitting and surehanded Mark Teixeira has replaced Jason Giambi's MVM (most valuable mustache), CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett will be making starts that were earmarked for Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy last season and Nick Swisher adds some versatility to the lineup that wasn't there before. Xavier Nady will have a full season to call right field his own, too, so as long as Joe Girardi holds the reins tight and Joba Chamberlain can prove he's a surefire starter, I think they'll have enough to take the AL Wild Card by a nose over Tampa Bay.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention: The Rays might have David Price joining their roster in May, but I'd still rather be welcoming back the best player in baseball to the team, as the Yankees will be doing with A-Rod.

DB: I can't believe you even mentioned Nick Swisher, much less tried to spin him positively! I had a good feeling about a monster season from A-Rod before this hip thing came up, but now he's recovering from surgery. Can he be counted on? Will Matsui be his old self? If they get 90 starts out of CC, Burnett and Joba, then they'll be right there. But will that happen? I ain't counting on it. (Brett Gardner, is that his name? How can you spend $400 million and have Brett Gardner playing center field? Embarrassing.)

'Duk: I think you're still upset that Swish wasn't vibing with Ozzie Guillen down the stretch last season, but I see where you're coming from in your criticisms. If A-Rod's hip proves to be an ongoing owie, will it be too late to change my wild card pick to the Rays?

DB: It's never too late to jump back on the Rays bandwagon. Unless you want to pick someone other than them, the Yanks or Sawx to win the AL East. Do the Blue Jays or Orioles Magic deserve any love, or are they not admitted to the 90-win club, too? The Jays might be a chic pick to surprise if Burnett were still there and Marcum weren't hurt... and some other things. But they have a ROY candidate in Travis Snider and Doc Halladay, the gunslinger. Why do you have these guys in last place?

'Duk: Let's just say that Skeets didn't answer one of my emails last week and this is how I'm paying that Canadian back. Nah, actually something doesn't sit well with me when it comes to this Blue Jays team. I was pretty excited about their prospects during last season's strong finish, but then Marcum shredded his elbow, Burnett opted out and I started to see why the Jays might be so blue. That's not to say that I think the Orioles will be more than two or three games better than them, but I like the potential of Baltimore's lineup, especially once they say it's OK for Matt Wieters to join the big boys.

DB: I think Marcum shredded a couple of guys' elbows, because I have no idea who some of these Jays starters are: Dave Purcey, Ricky Romero (good jockey name), Scott Richmond. I saw Scott Richmond's name and thought, "sounds Canadian." Guess where he's from? Vancouver. Man, I can spot a Canadian name from a kilo away. I do like former Rays bat boy Jesse Litsch and the bullpen is OK, as long as BJ Ryan can hack it. You know why the Blue Jays will fail? Because general manager JP Ricciardi, AKA Moe Szyslak, will get a combined 30 home runs out of first base and DH. Unless you have power up the middle, and the Jays don't, what are you doing? Lyle Overbay OR Adam Lind, but not BOTH. How hard is it to find a 1B and DH to hit a combined 60 homers in this day and age?

'Duk: Well, Luke Scott will have to improve seven dingers (23 in '08) and Aubrey Huff will have to keep hitting angry to hit your preferred mark of 60, but they're a better duo than Overbay and Lind. Plus, that top of the order — Brian Roberts, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis and Huff — is enough to make you forget (at least for a little while) that the O's top two starters are Jeremy Guthrie and Koji Uehara and that Adam Eaton is being asked to be an innings eater. Yeesh.

DB: Oh, is THAT who the A. Eaton is on the death depth chart? I saw Scott McGregor hanging around (coaching, specifically) in Ft. Lauderdale and thought he could still get guys out throwing 70 mph like he did in the '80s. I really like certain parts of the Orioles club, like the guys you mentioned (except for Scott — not a huge Scott guy) and Wieters makes them much more potent. But you look at the Orioles roster and then you look at the Yanks, Sawx and Rays, and you wonder why some think a contender is around the corner. They're at least half a pitching staff short — and supposedly they have some of the best minor league pitching around — but how long until that benefits them in the majors? 'Duk, the Rays broke through last year but the rest of this division isn't about to join them at the top. I'm all for adding a fourth division to the AL. Put the Orioles and Jays in it. Two teams only. One makes the playoffs. Let's call it the AL Rest. Does the idea interest you?

'Duk: Intriguing, but I'd have been much more for that idea before the Rays rose up and some pretty good Toronto teams were getting gypped. We could have had a three-team race.

But instead of radical realignments, I think I'm going to focus my energies on devising a setup where I can continually watch the Rays, Red Sox and Yankees games at one time during warm summer nights because I think this race is going to live up to all the hype. I just hope we can find time to post about these squads on The Stew. Really, I'm not sure we will.

DB: Nah, we'll probably be talking about the Royals too much.

* * *

AL East predicted order of finish

'Duk: 1. Red Sox, 2. Yankees, 3. Rays, 4. Orioles, 5. Blue Jays

DB: 1. Rays, 2. Red Sox, 3. Yankees, 4. Blue Jays, 5. Orioles

AL East MVP

'Duk: Kevin Youkilis, Red Sox

DB: Evan Longoria, Rays

AL East Cy Young

'Duk: CC Sabathia, Yankees

DB: Jon Lester, Red Sox

AL East Rookie of the Year

'Duk: Matt Wieters, Orioles

DB:  Matt Wieters, Orioles

* * *

Coming Friday — The NL East

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