Monday, April 6, 2009
AL East Preview
With MLB Opening Day upon us, I figure it is time for my final division predictions. Most of my readers are supporters of one of the AL East teams, so there is a lot at stake here. I will try to be as impartial as I can be, but living in Boston and being compared to a modern day Brad Penny is obviously heavy on my mind. The AL East is obviously going to be a three horse race this year between the Tampa Bay Rays, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. The Orioles and Blue Jays will have the unfortunate assignment of having to play each of these teams a lot, with lineups that are far inferior. Taking everything into account, I'm going to predict that the Boston Red Sox will take the AL East this year, with the Yankees battling them tooth and nail the whole way while taking the Wild Card. This division will probably have the teams with the two best records in the American League, and will most likely represent the AL in the World Series.
I picked the Evil Empire to finish second this year and win the Wild Card for a number of reasons. The first and most obvious reason is the questions in their lineup. With A-Rod out until the end of the month recovering from hip surgery, there is a huge production void at third base. Also, how will Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui respond to their injury riddled seasons last year. Unlike the injured Red Sox guys, these two are still going ot be counted on to be a huge part of the offense for New York. Can Robinson Cano play to his potential? How will Brett Gardner fare as the starting center fielder? Have Jeter and Damon lost a step? There is no doubt in my mind that when the Yankees are firing on all cylinders they are one of the most feared lineups in baseball. But they have a lot of work to do to get to that level and I think that could be a bad sign for an aging lineup. The Yankees pitching looks pretty great on paper, but questions loom there as well. How will C.C. Sabathia do after pitching sooooo many innings last year? How will he respond to returning to the American League, where he went 4-8 with a 4.34 ERA last year? Can he win in the playoffs? Will A.J. Burnett stay healthy again this year, or was last year just a fluke? How will Wang bounce back from his ankle injury last year? Can Joba stay strong the whole season as a starter? Speaking of Joba, how will the bullpen do without him this year? Mariano will be solid in the 9th for sure, but can they get the ball to him? Damaso Marte and Brian Bruney are pretty good set up men, but in the unlikely event that one of them should falter, would Joba have to pick up the slack? Then who becomes the 5th starter? The Yankees certainly have the fire power to compete in the AL East and to make the playoffs, but there are a number of questions with their squad this year, coupled with the Curse of the Rod and the Curse of the Highest Paid team, that will probably keep them from winning the division. Still, look for them to win about 92 games this year and make the playoffs.
I envision the Tampa Bay Rays going through some serious growing pains this year. In the last three years, the World Series losers have gone on to miss the playoffs the next season, and I see that happening to the Rays this year. Though they signed free agent slugger and all around model citizen Pat Burrell, I think the Rays offense will take a step back this year. B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria all played well last year and are a solid core, but the rest of the lineup played out of their minds. Look for the Rays to come back to earth in the hitting department, and maybe not stay quite as healthy as they did last year. The Rays starting rotation should improve this year with the addition of David Price whenever he gets called up, but I think their aces James Shields and Scott Kazmir still need a little seasoning. Their bullpen is also questionable as Troy Percival is an injury waiting to happen at closer. Balfour, Howell and Wheeler are all pretty solid set up men though. Though they are a very talented team, look for the Rays to falter this year against the Red Sox and Yankees.
The Orioles will be a pesky team this year, but they have nowhere near what it takes to compete in the AL East. Their rotation has Adam Eaton in it. That should tell you all you need to know about that. The bullpen is nothing special with Chris Ray returning from surgery and George Sherrill an adventure at closer. The O's lineup has some potential with Nick Markakis, Brian Roberts and eventually Matt Wieters, but that is not much compared to the clout of some of the other lineups in the AL East. The Orioles have the potential some day to be the surprise team of the AL East like the Rays were last year, but they still need a lot of improvements, particularly to their pitching staff, until they get there. Look for them to win about 70-75 games this year and finish fourth in the AL East.
Which brings us to the Toronto Blue Jays. Roy Halladay is the stud on their staff, but there is no substance behind him. With B.J. Ryan struggling, the bullpen could also be a huge liability in Toronto. This does not bode well. The lineup is nothing special either. Alex Rios could be a great player, but I think that Vernon Wells has reached his maximum potential as a player and there is not much else to crow about in the Blue Jays' batting order. Toronto tried to throw money around for a few years to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox, but ultimately failed. Now they are locked into some big contracts and don't have much to show for them. The only thing worse than playing for Toronto this year will be watching them play.
I picked the Red Sox to come in first this year for several reasons. Most of all though, I like their depth in all areas. The Yankees made all the big news in the offseason this year, but I think it was because they knew that the Red Sox were way ahead of them in terms of talent. Therefore the Sox made a few minor signings and are going to watch the players that they have developed turn into stars. The Sox big 3 of Beckett, Matsuzaka and Lester (possible Cy Young candidate) can match up with anybody. On top of that add two former All-Stars who got injured at the wrong time in Brad Penny and John Smoltz and you've got a stellar rotation. And should they get injured again you've got innings eater Tim Wakefield and talented but shaky Clay Bucholz to back them up. That is 7 major league quality starters. Not bad. The bullpen was bolstered by the addition of Takashi "beating on his gong" Saito, and was solid to begin with featuring Hideki Okajima, Justin Masterson and Jon Papelbon (or Bapbullbon in Dill speak). The Sox lineup has shifted its identity from the 2007 World Series team. Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Jason Bay are now the heart of the order, but David Ortiz should finally be healthy this year so it will be interesting to see if he can help out more. I wouldn't count on much from Mike Lowell though. Jacoby Ellsbury and JD Drew are big questions in the outfield, but again the Sox have depth should those two struggle. Chris Carter tore the cover off the ball in Spring training, and Rocco Baldelli has finally figured out what was ailing him for so long and put together a decent Spring. Again, options. The Sox have done a good job over the past few years of keeping their stars while producing new ones. I look for them to have very good pitching, solid hitting and respond to adversity very well with their depth. I like them to win about 95 games this year and to take the AL East. Like it or lump it, that's how I see it. Enjoy the regular season!!