Spring Training: Breakdown of the AL East

Posted: March 6, 2011 by Josh Tannenbaum in Uncategorized

As Spring Training gets going, the feeling of baseball is back. While there are a lot of early stories buzzing around, the most intriguing topic is the competition in the American League East. The division is always competitive as the Red Sox and Yankees seem to be loaded every year, but there is a lot of talent on the other three teams as well. Let’s examine what each team has done to improve their chances at winning it all.

The New York Yankees

The Evil Empire is still a force to be reckoned with. The starting pitching seems to be the concern that everyone likes to pick on, but let’s not make too much of a thin Yankee rotation. Yes, the back end of the rotation is not set in stone (with Ivan Nova, Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, and Sergio Mitre battling it out for two spots), and AJ Burnett’s contribution is a heated topic of debate, but the Yankees made other moves in order to counterbalance what may be an issue with their starters.

Firstly, they went out and signed Rafael Soriano. Soriano was arguably the best closer in the American League last season (notching 45 saves with a 1.73 ERA and a 0.80 WHIP), and will now pitch the 8th inning for the Yanks, setting up of Mariano Rivera in the 9th. They also signed lefty reliever Pedro Feliciano from the Mets. These additions, along with a bullpen that already consisted of Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson, Boone Logan, and Damaso Marte, completes the best bullpen in baseball and will shorten the game for Yankee starters.

Another knock on the Yanks is their aging. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are getting up there in age, 36 and 35 respectively, and have shown some decline in their numbers. However, their roles on the team are not what they used to be. The Yankees don’t need A-Rod to hit 40 jacks anymore, or Jeter to hit .330. The lineup is stacked from top to bottom, and superstars Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira certainly take some of the pressure off of the older veterans. I still expect Jeter and A-Rod to have productive seasons in which they continue to add to their sparkling career numbers.

The Boston Red Sox

After a relatively down year, the Sox RELOADED, capitalization necessary. They went out and signed Carl Crawford, easily the most sought-after hitter on the free agent market, and traded with San Diego for first-baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who was set to be a free agent in 2012. These two hitters join an already-above-average lineup that has Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz, and Jacoby Ellsbury. They also added former White Sox closer Bobby Jenks to the bullpen, to offer more support for Jonathan Papelbon who struggled mightily last season with a 3.90 ERA and an ML-leading 8 blown saves.

As mentioned earlier, the Yankees rotation is up in the air. But despite having a set 5-man rotation, the Red Sox have some questions in their starting pitching as well. Both Josh Beckett and John Lackey were disappointing last season, Daisuke Matsuzaka remains inconsistent with injury troubles and an ongoing inability to locate pitches. Both Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are very nice pieces, but it will be interesting to see how the back end of the Red Sox rotation responds.

The Tampa Bay Rays

Carl Crawford, a mainstay in the Tampa lineup for 8+ years, is now gone. Carlos Pena and Matt Garza are gone. The new-look Rays are not the same team they were a year ago, but they are still a very talented squad. The lineup will still revolve around young superstar Evan Longoria, with some support from BJ Upton, who is still looking for his breakout season, and Ben Zobrist, who looks to bounce back after a slightly disappointing 2010. The Rays also added a pair of veterans in the always-interesting Manny Ramirez and his old Boston teammate Johnny Damon. Ramirez and Damon are professional hitters who, despite their age, are not easy outs. They also know the division very well, which should come in handy when playing the Yankees and Red Sox.

The Rays have a young, but very talented pitching staff. Led by 2010 Cy Young Award runner-up David Price, Tampa will also throw James Shields, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, and highly-regarded rookie Jeremy Hellickson, who will take Matt Garza’s spot in the rotation. Garza was very solid, but Hellickson is the real deal and showed it last season when he was called up last August for 4 starts, in which he went 3-0 with a 2.05 ERA.

Tampa might not be as good as they were over the last three years, but if some of these young players step up, this team could compete for a wild card spot in the American League.

The Baltimore Orioles

The O’s have struggled in the division, but have added a slew of hitters via free agency. Vladimir Guerrero, Derrek Lee, Mark Reynolds, and JJ Hardy join a lineup that already consisted of quality players like Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Brian Roberts and Matt Wieters. Don’t overlook this team. This is an above-average offense at worst that could end up finishing in the top-10 in the majors. But it’s not all about the lineup. The Orioles have some talented young pitchers that could break out.

Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta are two young pitchers that offer an array of pitches. Also, Justin Duchscherer was added to the rotation. Duchscherer has suffered from injuries throughout his career, but when healthy, this is a very good pitcher with a lot of upside.

The Orioles are not good enough to win the division or probably even compete for the wild card spot, but improvements were made in the offseason and the franchise is moving in the right direction under new manager Buck Showalter.

The Toronto Blue Jays

The Jays are a young team with some heavy hitters, but their young rotation is going to be the deciding factor in how good they can be. Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow both showed signs of greatness last season, but consistency needs to get better from the top two starters in the rotation. A big story to watch here is the performance of top prospect Kyle Drabek, who was acquired from the Phillies in the Roy Halladay trade a year ago. If Drabek can make an instant impact, the Blue Jays could make some noise in the division.

Slugger Jose Bautista is coming off a season in which he hit a RIDICULOUS 54 bombs along with 124 RBI. Don’t expect those numbers again, but this guy can really rake. Also, Adam Lind and Aaron Hill look to get back to their 2009 production, as both struggled in 2010.

The Jays are in the same boat as the Orioles. They are a team with talent, but given the nature of the AL East, they must settle for an early ticket home.

All in all, this division is absolutely stacked. With the Sox, Yanks, and Rays at the top, and the O’s and Jays at the bottom, this division sports 5 very solid teams. Unfortunately, only two of these teams at the most can make the playoffs. I expect those teams to be the Red Sox and Yankees, both of which should win 93+ games. The Rays shouldn’t fall too short, winning somewhere between 80-85 games. And the Orioles and Jays are looking at 70-80-win seasons. The best division in baseball should be very competitive this year.

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