Yahoo! Sports is taking an early look at each division in the days leading up to Feb. 14, when pitchers and catchers report to spring training. Today, the American League East.
And then it wasn't really about the New York Yankees anymore. Not the way it was, anyway, when four championships came in five years, running the big count to 26, decorating the baseball world in navy pinstripes and Yankees fans in glee.
No, just when it seemed the Yankees would go on forever, and Tino Martinez would always have one more good at-bat in him, and Derek Jeter would always lead champions, and Joe Torre would always find a way, baseball leaned instead toward parity, and then the Boston Red Sox took that too.
Eight of the last 15 World Series champions – and two of the last four – have come out of one division, the AL East. And now the AL East belongs not to the Yankees but to the Red Sox, who accumulate just enough character guys to lighten the burden of high payrolls and massive expectations in a relentless baseball town.
And, finally, when Torre went to find his way one last time, it led him all the way to Los Angeles.
First impression: After a decade of being pleased that the baseball gods sent them the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, keeping them out of a nice string of last-place finishes, the Orioles appear committed to shaking the Etch-A-Sketch. There's still the Peter Angelos factor to consider. The man's pushing 80, and who starts over at 80? But, seeing as his Orioles probably aren't in a position to make up 27 games on the Red Sox, and Andy MacPhail has a reasonable – if overdue (not his fault) – long-term course in mind, maybe it's time for Angelos to lift his feet and let his baseball people carry him along. Already, MacPhail has unloaded Miguel Tejada and, as of this writing, set in motion deals for left-handed ace Erik Bedard (Seattle) and All-Star second baseman Brian Roberts (Chicago Cubs). Those three trades could bring as many as 13 or 14 new faces, pitchers with upside and position players with hunger. There was a time when the Orioles were building toward 2009, and now they're waiting for contracts to expire – those of Melvin Mora, Jay Gibbons and Ramon Hernandez – so they can get on with the rejuvenation. Ultimately, Bedard, because he doesn't also carry a $140-million price tag, will bring more than Johan Santana did to the Minnesota Twins. Like the Tejada deal before it, and the Roberts deal that could follow, it's a start.
Competition: Somebody's going to have to replace Tejada. Unless a Roberts trade brings a shortstop – Ronny Cedeno from the Chicago Cubs? – the position probably goes to Luis Hernandez or Brandon Fahey. A waiver pickup from the Atlanta Braves after the 2006 season, Hernandez is a good defender who showed some offensive aptitude in 30 games with the Orioles last season.
Healing: The Orioles expect left-hander Adam Loewen to recover from a stress fracture in his pitching elbow and compete for a place in the rotation. Relievers Chris Ray and Danys Baez will miss most, if not all, of 2008 because of elbow surgeries. DH/first baseman Aubrey Huff is coming back from a sports hernia, but should not be limited in camp. Outfielder Jay Gibbons has recovered from a torn labrum, but will serve a 15-day suspension for substance abuse to start the season.
Next: Randor Bierd, a raw but talented right-hander, could find his way into the bullpen. He's a Rule 5 pick from the Detroit Tigers. Left-hander Troy Patton, who came to the Orioles in the Tejada trade, has a chance to make the rotation out of spring.
BOSTON RED SOX
First impression: Theo Epstein's crew looks much as we left it three nights before Halloween; that is, thick in pitching, stout in run producers and riding momentum the organization hasn't experienced in 90 years. The Red Sox dabbled in the Johan Santana talks, traded for right-hander David Aardsma and invited a couple Dans – Miceli and Kolb – to spring training. Epstein and the rest of management seemed almost relieved when Santana went to the New York Mets, amounting to AL East détente between the Sox and Yankees. After all, Epstein would appear to have plenty of starting pitching and no desire to look gluttonous. Jon Lester, who went 5 2/3 strong in Game 4 against the Colorado Rockies, and Clay Buchholz are big-league ready in a rotation that already boasts Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield. But, Schilling and Wakefield are in their 40s and in contract years, so the time is close – if not now – for Lester and Buchholz. The Red Sox view Lester as an Andy Pettitte type and Buchholz as a future No. 1. We'll hear a lot about Manny Ramirez's contract, the guaranteed portion of which expires after this season. He recently said – joking, we assume – he'd like to play as long as Julio Franco has, and is putting in the gym time to prove it. There'd be no reason for the Red Sox to bail on Ramirez now, assuming another Ramirez-type season is coming. He'll be 36 at the end of May. Catcher Jason Varitek, coming up on 36 himself, is in the final year of his contract, with young Dusty Brown coming.
Competition: The most interesting (on-field) developments in Fort Myers could come out of center field, where Terry Francona will have to massage the Coco Crisp-Jacoby Ellsbury situation. By all indications, the Red Sox included Ellsbury or Crisp in variations of their offers to the Twins for Santana, though neither departed. Ellsbury, whom some project as a Johnny Damon talent, didn't overtake Crisp until the final week of October, meaning two World Series at-bats for Crisp and a near-MVP series for Ellsbury. It's possible this becomes a straight platoon, with one or the other available to spell Ramirez in the late-inning leads. It'll be harder on Crisp than Ellsbury, so if there's an ego to soothe, it'll be Crisp's. Epstein could also move him sometime in spring training.
Healing: David Ortiz, who slogged through knee and shoulder injuries last season (and still finished in the MVP top five for the fifth consecutive year), had knee surgery and should be healthy for the start of camp. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia had a hamate bone removed from his ailing left hand and says he is at full health. Wakefield and Buchholz are believed to be over shoulder problems.
Next: Shortstop Julio Lugo starts only the second year of a four-year contract ($36 million), but Jed Lowrie isn't that far off. Before the end of the contract, the Red Sox will be trying to move Lugo to make room for Lowrie, who projects as a decent defensive shortstop with a better-than-decent bat.
NEW YORK YANKEES
First impression: So, the Yankees threw another $218 million, another record payroll, at a baseball season and got bupkiss. It's also what they got for their $200 million the season before. They just spent $400 million or so this winter and, near as we can tell, their new players are named LaTroy Hawkins and Morgan Ensberg – first baseman Morgan Ensberg. Now, they had no choice on Alex Rodriguez. He's the best player in the game. And Jorge Posada, at 36, just had his finest offensive season. And Mariano Rivera, who turned 38 in November, had a so-so season by his standards, but he's Mariano Rivera and they just don't make 'em like Mo. The man has an 0.77 ERA in 76 postseason appearances. Problem is, he hasn't had a postseason save since 2005, when the Yankees began their run of three consecutive division series-and-outs. The Yankees finished out of first place in the AL East for the first time in a decade, and the plan to get back on top hinges on production from a familiar lineup (its 968 runs were the most in baseball, by a lot) and broad improvement by a pitching staff that was, at best, ordinary in 2007. Joe Girardi had a nice touch with pitchers when he was behind the plate and did again when he was on the bench in Florida, in 2006 spinning youngsters Dontrelle Willis, Scott Olsen, Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez into wild-card contention. The mix is more varied in New York, where Girardi will lean on the established (Andy Pettitte, Chien-Ming Wang, Mike Mussina) along with the trainees (Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Jeff Karstens) and the mysteries (Kei Igawa). For the moment, the best scenario is to have Chamberlain in the bullpen setting up Rivera. That would mean Mussina has another season left in him, buffering the break-in period for the three stud arms. The Yankees also have floated using Igawa in the bullpen, though Igawa has resisted.
Competition: It's less a competition than a sorting out, but the Yankees are becoming a team thick in designated hitters. In theory, Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui are healthy and productive enough to line up at first base, DH and left field, respectively. The Yankees signed Ensberg to play some first, and they'll also give Wilson Betemit and Shelley Duncan looks there. As of today, Sean Henn is the only lefty in the bullpen.
Healing: Duncan, who's known to run into pitches now and then (five home runs in his first 25 big-league at-bats, two in his next 49), underwent surgery for a hernia after the season and reportedly developed a blood clot in his arm. Team officials have been vague about the injury, but they expect him to compete for a place on the bench. They're talking May for hard-thrower Humberto Sanchez, who came over in last winter's Gary Sheffield trade and then needed Tommy John surgery. Carl Pavano. Enough said.
Next: It's all about Hughes, Chamberlain and Kennedy.
TAMPA BAY RAYS
First impression: Progress. Not contention progress, of course. But, maybe, something other than last place for the second time in their history. GM Andrew Friedman exhaled hard and traded potential superstar Delmon Young for a front-end starter (Matt Garza) and a starting shortstop (Jason Bartlett), meaning the Rays should pitch with most teams three games in five, at least. Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Garza are a good start and Troy Percival, Al Reyes and Dan Wheeler might give the Rays a chance in the late innings. By position, and including DH, the Rays were below the league average in RBIs in five of nine spots and were borderline in a sixth. To that end, Aki Iwamura shifts to second base and the plan was to have Willy Aybar keep third base warm while the organization waits on Evan Longoria. But Aybar appears to be in more trouble in the Dominican Republic. That could hasten Longoria's arrival, or disappointing giant Joel Guzman could see early time there. They can only hope Carlos Pena, who came from nowhere to hit 46 home runs and set other personal bests in on-base percentage (.411), RBI (121), etc., comes close to that again, particularly since they rewarded him with a three-year, $24.1-million contract, by average annual value the second largest in team history to that of Greg Vaughn. The Rays also signed Shields to a long-term contract that, with all options and incentives attained, would be worth $44 million over seven seasons. The goals are fourth place and a .500 record. It's a long shot. But, a shot nevertheless.
Competition: After Kazmir, Shields and Garza come a handful of hopefuls for the fourth and fifth spots, notably Andy Sonnanstine (6-10, 5.85 ERA), Edwin Jackson (5-15, 5.76), Jason Hammel (3-5, 6.14), J.P. Howell (1-6, 7.59) and Jeff Niemann (12-6, 3.98 in Triple A). Potentially complicating, Hammel and Jackson are out of options.
Healing: Once a well-regarded prospect in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, Aybar sat out 2007 reportedly to deal with emotional and substance-abuse crises. Still just 24, Aybar hoped to start over in Tampa, where he's probably a better short-term solution at third than Guzman, yet another former Dodgers prospect. But Aybar might have put more distance between himself and his career, if reports out of the Dominican are accurate. The Rays believe much of their season rides on Rocco Baldelli, whom they regard as a supreme talent. He has suffered from various ailments, lately hamstring related. While he is a better outfielder than Cliff Floyd or Jonny Gomes, Baldelli goes to camp as the first option at designated hitter, removing the injury risk in right field, where Gomes and Floyd will platoon.
Next: When the Rays watched Troy Tulowitzki become one of the better players in the league last season, they saw Longoria, who has the skills to be a high-average, run-producing, defensively-adept third baseman. He should arrive no later than mid-summer and has a chance to win the job outright this spring.
First impression: GM J.P. Ricciardi has done enough here – adding shortstop and leadoff hitter David Eckstein, third baseman Scott Rolen, supersub Marco Scutaro – to fluff up the offense, maintain a developing pitching staff, and therefore make a run at the Yankees and the AL wild card. Only the Red Sox pitched better last season, but the offense faltered beneath injuries to Vernon Wells (shoulder), Lyle Overbay (hand) and Troy Glaus (foot). Glaus is gone, replaced by Rolen, who potentially carries an even greater injury risk. The Blue Jays were particularly vulnerable to right-handed pitching, a fact that makes Overbay's recovery (and Adam Lind's development in left, for that matter) critical. The Blue Jays also were one of the league's worst from the leadoff spot (13th in on-base percentage, 14th in batting average, 11th in runs), which is why Eckstein made such sense. Assuming he does in the American League what he did for the Cardinals over three seasons, Eckstein could make a huge difference in Toronto. Again, he too has missed a lot of games over the past two seasons, making health a season-long theme for most of the lineup. In those times the offense goes flat, the Blue Jays would appear to have the pitching talent and depth to survive. If all goes well in camp, right-hander Casey Janssen will be fourth in the rotation, behind Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett and Dustin McGowan and ahead of Shaun Marcum. And an already sturdy bullpen gets closer B.J. Ryan back almost a year after Tommy John surgery.
Competition: The only everyday job being contested in spring is in left field, Lind vs. Reed Johnson. The 2006 Johnson would win this job. In April he had surgery for a herniated disc, however, and had a very difficult August and September. Right-hander Jesse Litsch, who came up in mid-May last season, debuted by going 8 2/3 innings to beat the Orioles, and was pretty good over the final three months, could win a rotation spot. Scutaro, who dabbled in the outfield with the Oakland A's, will play as much outfield as he does infield during camp.
Healing: Ryan got back on a mound for the first time this week. While there is some optimism for him to be ready by Opening Day, May 1 is a more rational target. Meantime, Jeremy Accardo, who had 30 saves last season, holds down the ninth. Wells and Overbay return healthy from surgeries, as does Rolen.
Next: Left-hander Brett Cecil, a left-handed reliever out of Maryland, could come quickly and lend another quality arm to the Blue Jays' rotation. Outfielder Travis Snider is promising enough to play in the Arizona Fall League as a 19-year-old. He's probably a year away, at least.