AL BEast Notebook – March 29
I’ve been covering each of the five East teams all winter and spring long and here is my “Official 2013 Preview.” Yes, it’s long so bookmark and come back often. I’ll have the rest of the league up in the next couple days.
The AL East will be the most interesting division in baseball with five teams that could each reasonably finish in first or last place. All should have win totals in the 80s. While the division has been known for it’s intimidating sluggers and top-to-bottom lineups, there has been a clear shift to pitching.
For each team you have:
1) my report with reasons to be excited and reasons to be concerned
2) specific bullet points of what must happen for them to succeed
3) specific bullet points of what must happen for them to end up in the basement
4) Season headline
5) My record prediction
6) How many more wins in best-case scenario (ceiling)
7) How many fewer wins in worst-case scenario (floor)
8) A player that is likely to outperform expectations
9) A player that is likely to disappoint
Boston Red Sox
After being MLB’s most disappointing team two years in a row Boston is looking for a bounce back season. They definitely aren’t in typical “Rebuilding Mode” with the likes of Victorino, Napoli, Gomes, Dempster, Lackey and (eventually) Ortiz all in prominent positions. Now that expectations are so low after losing 93 games they hope that a new manager, revamped lineup and more secure bullpen will get them back into prominence. But it won’t be easy.
Two of the best pitchers this spring were Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. After a dismal 2012 campaign, that is a welcome sight for Sox fans. Even Jon Lackey has been effective. In fact, the Red Sox staff led the league in Spring Training ERA. It may just be Grapefruit League but it’s much better to be good than bad!
There are issues with the lineup. Your Opening Day lineup will include Jose Iglesias, Jonny Gomes, Jackie Bradley, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The #5 hitter is a player with less than a full year of major league experience (Will Middlebrooks). If things go poorly—and with injured and injury-prone players like Ortiz, Ellsbury, Napoli and Gomes, and young players like Middlebrooks, Bradley and Iglesias, you can expect it—there is virtually no depth on this roster.
The weak bullpen from a year ago looks to be put together well. New closer Joel Hanrahan, former All-Star Andrew Bailey, and veteran setup man Koji Uehara are expected to shorten games to 6 innings.
For those that think the pitching staff will bounce back to greatness, consider this: Saltalamacchia is the signal caller. Jason Varitek is long gone. Once Salty took the majority of the time behind the plate the starting pitching (everyone) fell apart. Don’t underestimate the importance of a good catcher (or impact of a catcher the pitchers don’t trust).
Red Sox will WIN the division IF…
1) Jon Lester wins 20 and Clay Buchholz wins 18
2) Ortiz and Ellsbury combine for 55 home runs
3) Napoli and Middlebrooks stay healthy all year
4) Dempster or Lackey pitch effectively
Red Sox will finish LAST in the division IF…
1) Ortiz and Stephen Drew are ineffective
2) Two of Ellsbury, Pedroia, Napoli or Middlebrooks miss significant time
3) Any two of the starting five pitchers miss significant time
“Sox Crumble Third Year in a Row”
80-82 +8 ; -8
Surprising impact: Jacoby Ellsbury
Biggest Disappointment: Ryan Dempster
Tampa Bay Rays
Tampa Bay had the best team ERA in all of baseball last year and won 90 games, but still finished third in the division, three games out of the final playoff spot. And in the offseason they lost James Shields, B.J. Upton and Carlos Pena and didn’t really replace them.
The biggest question for the Rays is where is the offense going to come from? Yes, Evan Longoria is ready after missing half the season and could finally emerge as an elite player, and Wil Myers will get called up sometime, but who else is there? Ben Zobrist and Luke Scott? That’s it! And while Myers is the best hitting prospect in baseball, he probably won’t break out like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. He could be great, but the Rays tend to baby their young players. Myers will be a star in 2014, but for ‘13 Tampa has the weakest lineup in the division.
Of course, their pitching is very good. David Price won 20 games, the other starters were great and Fernando Rodney finished 2012 with a 0.60 ERA and 48 saves. Can young Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb keep the Rays’ team ERA microscopic again? Well sure, but it’s not a guarantee. And if you check the history of Rodney, his first year in Tampa was his first since 2006 of an ERA lower than 4.24 and WHIP under 1.47. Seems like a fluke.
Many people are picking the Rays to make the playoffs. The Rays have been the quietest team in the league this spring, and that’s surely a very positive thing. Great pitching in Tampa has been a given for like eight years now. Joe Maddon, perhaps the best game manager in baseball is running the show. But I cannot see how a team that continues to lose key players year after year without bringing in free agents will keep it up this year, especially in such a competitive division.
Rays will WIN the division IF…
1) David Price wins 20 games again and another pitcher wins 16
2) Evan Longoria plays 155+ games
3) Wil Myers is called up early and breaks out in a big way
4) Fernando Rodney continues where he left off in the WBC with another All-Star season
5) Two of Zobrist, Joyce, Scott or Jennings hit .295+ with 25+ homers
Rays will finish LAST in the division IF…
1) Something happens to Price and Longoria
2) Hellickson and Matt Moore regress
3) No hitter beyond Longoria provides power
“Where’s James Shields?” and “Not Enough Help for Longoria”
83-79; +7 ; -4
Surprising impact: Alex Cobb
Disappointment: Matt Moore
New York Yankees
Yankees won 95 last year, and this team looked like the worst 95-win team in the history of baseball. Due to injuries and questionable personnel decisions the lineup is very different, especially early in the season.
Everybody knows about the crowded star-studded disabled list (Teixeira, Granderson, A-Rod, Pineda, Hughes and Jeter) and they have a whole bunch of other players that could potentially fall apart (Hafner, Youkilis, Wells, Ichiro, Pettitte, Rivera) and some key positions that are serious offensive question marks: catcher (Stewvelli) and first base (Overbay). It is just not the situation you want to be in to start the season.
One concern with this team is that they are very lefty-heavy in the lineup. Cano, Granderson, Gardner, Ichiro, Hafner, and Overbay all bat from the left side. That’s great for Yankees Stadium, but they will struggle on the road against left-handed starting pitchers.
Robinson Cano is the one rock on this team. He will be an MVP candidate every year he stays in pinstripes. Reports are that Curtis Granderson should return on time and back to form in May. The power is gone, but there is still ability to score runs with Ichiro, Gardner, and Jeter/Nunez at the top of the lineup. The starting pitching is strong and deep. The bullpen, even without Rafael Soriano, should be very strong again as long as Mariano is effective.
Eduardo Nunez struggles defensively, but if he ever gets a full-time job he could hit .300 with 25 homers and 30 steals.
Yankees will WIN the division IF…
1) C.C. Sabathia makes 28+ starts
2) Derek Jeter plays 145 games and hits .290+
3) At least two of Hafner, Youkilis, or Wells make it through the season healthy and somewhat effective
4) At least two of Teixeira, Rodriguez or Pineda return and are somewhat effective
5) Mariano Rivera stays healthy and Rivera-like
Yankees will finish LAST in the division IF…
1) Sabathia and Cano miss significant time
2) Teixeira and A-Rod miss the season, or are ineffective upon return
3) Rivera shows the effects of his 43rd birthday, getting hurt or pitching poorly
4) Yankees get nothing from Wells and Youkilis
“Old Age and Injuries Catch With Bombers”
84-78; +5 ; -6
Surprising impact: Kevin Youkilis
Disappointment: Derek Jeter
Baltimore had a miracle season, winning 93 games taking the Yankees to a full series after knocking out the Texas Rangers in the playoffs. And all this after averaging 94 losses for the previous six seasons. What was most miraculous was how they won. They did not even have a positive run differential until September 28, the last week of the season. They dealt with tons of injuries. They only had one pitcher start more than 20 games or pitch 140 innings, and that was an unspectacular rookie. And of course, their 29-9 record in one run games, including a record 13 in a row, is something difficult to explain.
Looking ahead to now, there are actually very few question marks with this team. While they don’t have a true “ace,” they have one of the deepest reservoirs of starting pitchers in the league including a handful of pitchers that were outstanding in limited 2012 action. Due to 65 starts by terrible pitchers their overall ERA was mediocre, and that should improve this season with a little stability.
Baltimore’s bullpen was one of the AL’s best, led by closer Jim Johnson’s league leading 51 saves, and Darren O’Day, Troy Patton, Pedro Strop and Luis Ayala. Johnson is a regression candidate, but the ‘pen should still be very strong.
The lineup is also very stable with many players on the way up in their careers (Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Chris Davis, Manny Machado, Nolan Reimold). Nate McLouth may have regained his All-Star form after the trade to Baltimore. Late call-up Machado looks like he could be a star player and is here for a full sophomore year. The biggest difference could be in the middle of the field as two-time All-Star Brian Roberts is finally healthy and looking good in spring. It looked like he would be hitting leadoff but just today Showalter announced that Roberts will start at the bottom of the order.
Buck Showalter has turned this young group into winners. They have a very good core of players in Jones, Wieters, Machado and Davis, and if the starting pitching doesn’t fall apart they should contend for the Wild Card again. If Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta develop and improve, they could win the East outright.
Orioles will WIN the division IF…
1) Team pitching gets their ERA down to 3.80
2) At least three pitchers win 13 games
3) The bullpen remains a strength
4) Brian Roberts plays 140+ games
5) Adam Jones and Matt Wieters make their third All-Star game
Orioles will finish LAST in the division IF…
1) The inexperienced pitching falls through
2) Two of oft-injured Roberts, McLouth, Reimold and McLouth can’t stay healthy and produce
“Critics Still Waiting for Showalter’s Club to Fade”
88-74; +4 ; -8
Surprising impact: Brian Roberts
Disappointment: Wei-Yin Chen
Toronto Blue Jays
Toronto sailed along at 45-44 until July 16 when Jose Bautista injured his wrist. Several pitchers broke down as well and the Jays floundered, going 28-45 the rest of the way. GM Alex Anthopoulos was very busy this offseason, acquiring R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, Emilio Bonifacio and re-hiring coach John Gibbons. Suddenly, Toronto looks like the most complete team in the division.
The biggest x-factors for the Jays this year are Johnson and Brandon Morrow. If they can stay healthy the Jays rotation should stay quite effective. You know what you are getting with Dickey, Buehrle and J.A. Happ, and the offense will score a lot of runs and hit a lot of home runs. Johnson and Morrow have top-of-the-rotation potential. If they stay healthy Toronto will win a lot of games.
One concern critics have is all the moving parts. Reyes played poorly in Miami, Johnson was less effective, Melky was suspended 50 games, and Dickey moves from pitcher friendly Citi Field and the NL East to the AL East. Bautista is coming off a wrist injury that has the potential to drain his power. All that being said, this is a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in twenty years. Changes had to be made! Opportunities presented themselves and the Jays jumped. And with three pitchers coming from the NL to AL East, remember that none of the Yankees, Rays, Red Sox or Orioles improved their lineups; in fact, they all (other than the Orioles) should have worse offenses.
I love the way this team is made: Knuckler, power righty, soft lefty, power righty, lefty. Reyes, Melky, Bautista and Encarnacion (42 homers in 2012) should be the most productive 1-4 this side of Los Angeles, and if Adam Lind and Brett Lawrie produce they are even deeper.
The one issue with the Jays is their bullpen, which was dead-last in the AL in 2012. They didn’t add anyone new. Closer Casey Janssen is coming off shoulder surgery and may not be ready for the start of the season, and Sergio Santos missed most of the regular season with shoulder surgery as well. The way the Jays are set up for “Win Now,” expect them to look at the free agents available (Brian Wilson, Jose Valverde, Francisco Rodriguez) should things start to fall apart.
Blue Jays will WIN the division IF…
1) Morrow and Johnson pitch 56+ games
2) Jose Bautista regains his power stroke and has an MVP-level season
3) Reyes and Cabrera each play 145+ games and hit over .290
4) Bullpen finishes no worse than 10th in the AL
Blue Jays will finish LAST in the division IF…
1) Any two of their top four starters miss significant time
2) Bautista re-injures his wrist
3) Bullpen repeats a dismal season
4) Major chemistry issues emerge
“Joey Bats is MVP” and “Anthopoulos’ Aggressiveness Pays Off”
89-73; +5 ; -5
Surprising impact: Brett Lawrie
Disappointment: Melky Cabrera
New York 84-78
Tampa Bay 83-79