Wednesday, March 31, 2010

AL East Preview: Yanks, Rays reign supreme

If I actually find the time to write each of the next 6 days, I will be able to get in previews for every division before the season starts on Monday. I know the Yankees and Red Sox play Sunday night, but I'm doing the AL East today so it doesn't matter! Here goes nothing.

Division Champion: New York Yankees

Did you think I was going to put Boston here? Or even Tampa Bay? The Yankees won their 27th title last season and are arguably a better team on paper heading into 2010. Losing veteran World Series heroes Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon will be the major blow to this squad, but the addition of Curtis Granderson should help soften the blow in the outfield.

Granderson is much better defensively than Damon and should use the short porch in right field even more effectively. Nick Johnson will DH in Matsui's stead and, while lacking the power of Godzilla, is an on-base machine slated to hit second and score lots of runs on extra-base hits by Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. The Yankees infield remains untouched and one of the better defensive infields in baseball.

The Yankees also bolstered their pitching staff, adding Javier Vazquez in a trade with Atlanta. Vazquez crumbled in the second half in his last stint with New York, but he's six years older and a much better pitcher now than he was in 2004. He will be a welcome addition as New York's third or fourth starter and Phil Hughes brings plenty of potential to the fifth starter's role. Joba Chamberlain will move back to the bullpen to set up Mariano Rivera and groom himself for the closer role in the future, while Alfredo Aceves, David Robertson, Damaso Marte and Sergio Mitre will handle work in the middle innings.

Their bullpen is far from awesome, but the Yankees have starters that can go deep into games and create a bridge straight to Chamberlain and Rivera on most nights. And we've all seen how nasty Joba can be out of the pen.

Division Runner-up (Wild Card winner): Tampa Bay Rays

From the team that won last year's World Series against the Phillies to the team that lost the previous year's World Series against the Phillies. Sorry Boston fans, but this Rays team is on the rise. After a 23-27 record in the first 50 games of the season, Tampa finished 61-51 the rest of the way. That projects to 90 wins or so and they won 97 the year before, so this team has definite 100-win potential and could even win the division.

This team is filled with young talent like Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton. To make the playoffs this season, they will need continued MVP-caliber play at the plate and in the field from Longoria and solid seasons from both Zobrist and Upton, who cannot possibly hit .241 again (or can he?). Their infield defense with Longoria, Zobrist, Jason Bartlett and Carlos Pena is also excellent and should help their pitching staff.

Speaking of pitching, this is the one area where Tampa most likely cannot compete with New York and Boston. James Shields should bounce back from a subpar season by his standards and I look for Matt Garza and Jeff Niemann to take steps forward this season as well. Youngsters David Price and Wade Davis fill out the rotation's final two spots, and the difference between 85 and 95 wins for this team may rest solely on their shoulders.

Boston Red Sox

When your division includes three of the American League's top four teams (and arguably three of the MLB's top five), they all can't make the playoffs. No one is saying the Red Sox are bad team; hard to say that about a squad that has won 190 games in the past two seasons. They will surely win 90 this year, but that may not be good enough in the AL East.

One thing I love about Boston this season is their pitching staff. Jon Lester should emerge as their ace this season, leaving Josh Beckett as one of the league's better second starters. John Lackey gives them a top three that can compete with any team in the big leagues but just like the Rays, they have question marks after their top three. Will this be the year that Clay Buchholz breaks out? Can Daisuke Matsuzaka stay healthy and regain his top form? Will Tim Wakefield's knuckeball ever stop knuckling?

Their lineup is still good, but losing Jason Bay and his tendency to pull high fly balls over the short Green Monster in left will hurt. My apologies to David Ortiz, Victor Martinez and Kevin Youkilis but the Red Sox lack that big home run threat in the middle of their lineup that both the Yankees (A-Rod, Teixeira) and Rays (Longoria) have. Ortiz could hit 30, but he's the only one in this lineup who can. The top of their lineup is excellent with those three, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia, but it's hard to rely on players like Adrian Beltre, Mike Cameron, J.D. Drew and Marco Scutaro for consistent contributions. And this year, that's exactly what the Red Sox are doing.

The Red Sox are still an excellent baseball team, but their lineup is not quite as menacing as it usually is. The Yankees and Rays both have pitching staffs that can neutralize the Red Sox hitters (outside of A.J. Burnett at Fenway), which is why I have those teams ahead of Boston this year. I expect to take some heat for this pick (noting my obvious anti-Boston bias), but I'm ready.

Baltimore Orioles

The O's are no threat to the division's top three teams, but they could be in 2-3 years, much like the Rays came up from the cellar. This team has loads of young talent with catcher Matt Wieters and outfielders Adam Jones and Nolan Reimold. Mix that in with veterans such as Nick Markakis, Brian Roberts and Miguel Tejada and this Baltimore lineup isn't as bad as most people think.

Their pitching staff, on the other hand, is still a way away from contention. Kevin Millwood is no Opening Day starter, but it looks like that's who Baltimore will send to the mound for their first game this year. The real intriguing pitcher to watch on this squad is Brian Matusz. A 38:14 K:BB ratio in 44 innings last season is cause for excitement and along with Brad Bergesen, David Hernandez and Chris Tillman, the Orioles have some potential in their staff for the future. They could win 70 games this season, which would be a step in the right direction after winning just 64 in 2009.

Toronto Blue Jays

Yes, they won 75 games last season. No, they won't do it again, not without Roy Halladay winning games by himself. This team will drop into the mid-60s in victories; it's just hard to overcome the dropoff from Halladay to Ricky Romero as your staff ace. Romero tailed off in the second half last season and the rest of their staff is also full of question marks. Can Shawn Marcum return to his 2008 performance level? Can Brandon Morrow become a successful starting pitcher? How do you spell Mark Rzepczynski?

Their lineup stinks too, outside of 2009 breakout stars Adam Lind and Aaron Hill. Vernon Wells is washed up as evidence by his measly three RBI in July and the Jays will need Lind/Hill-type breakout years from Edwin Encarnacion, Travis Snider or both to pose any sort of offensive threat against the deep, talented pitching staffs that reside in the AL East.

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