AL East Preview

The teams, questions and predictions heading into spring training.

Josh Helmuthby Josh Helmuth

The American League East is set to be, once again, one of the toughest divisions in baseball. Although completing one of the most epic collapses in MLB history last year, the Red Sox will again be in the running for the division crown, the Yankees should be slightly improved and the Rays will be clawing their way to another post season birth as well. We’re not even into spring training yet, but given current rosters and situations, here is how I feel the AL East will most likely fall into place in 2012.

 

Boston Red Sox                Predicted Finish – 1st

Like I said; epic collapse last season. You can blame it on beer and chicken, management or injuries, but the point is, it’s all behind them.

In fact, you could also say it was a little unlucky. Not only did they battle with injuries, but if you look at Boston’s pitching, it was actually better than it was in 2009 when they won 95 games. 2009 stats: 4.35 team ERA, 1.41 team WHIP – 2011 stats: 4.20 ERA, 1.31 WHIP. That’s a pretty significant drop, yet they missed the playoffs, leaving the entire northeast looking for a scapegoat.

The Questions:

How will Clay Buchholz perform?

All signs are pointing that Buchholz, who had a breakout season in 2010, will be just fine. The stress fracture in his back had supposedly been healed by October and doctors are saying it’s rare that such an injury recurs. He is a legitimate number two starter when healthy, so having him back will be huge for the Sox.

Will Bobby Valentine succeed in his first year as manager in Boston?

Here is an excerpt from one of my articles during the off-season: “I love this hire. Valentine not only claims to have invented the wrap, but he has something all the other newly acquired managers don’t have (other than zany ol’ Guillen): previous experience + success.  Funny as it sounds, he’s never finished in first place, but he’s known to turn around teams quickly and led the Mets to the 2000 World Series. He’s hard around the edges and doesn’t always play nice, but that’s what Boston needs. The Red Sox players are going to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ rather quickly this spring training. I guarantee there won’t be beer and chicken during games under Valentine’s watch…. Unless of course those are things Bobby V invented too.”

Should fans be worried with some of the new position changes?

I really like what the Sox have done. I actually think Mike Aviles (career .288 avg) is an upgrade over Marco Scutaro or Jed Lowrie at shortstop. Ryan Lavarnway is in line to become the first solid catcher Boston has had since Jason Varitek circa 2005. And while right field seems to be a little bit of a hole, with injury plagued J.D. Drew gone, anyone is sure to be an upgrade.

Rundown: If healthy, they have one of the best rotations in baseball that includes Lester, Beckett, Buchholz and a possible solid number five starter in Daniel Bard. ‘Big Papi’ proved he could rake again. Jacoby Ellsbury and Adrian Gonzalez are coming off incredible years as well. If Youkilis and Crawford find the health to join the hit parade that also includes Dustin Pedroia, it’s hard to see the Red Sox not finding their way into the post season. In fact, I would say almost dang near impossible. I would throw in a guarantee, but who am I? Joe Namath? Don’t think so.

 

New York Yankees                     Predicted finish – 2nd

Oh, the Yankees; the most beloved and most hated team in baseball, if not all of sports. It’s literally a toss up between New York and Boston in regards to whom is the better team. It will literally all come down to execution, and possibly a little luck.

The Questions:

How will Jeter and A-Rod perform?

I honestly feel Derek Jeter has a couple more years of solid production left in the tank. He finished last year very strong and I think he is still close to a .300 hitter and can still score runs. A-Rod I’m not so sure. I think he can still hit, but I’m not so sure his body can take the beating of an every-day schedule that baseball demands. Unless the Yankees give him regular rest, Rodriguez is sure to hit another DL stint in 2012.

Is the Yankee rotation now one of the best in the AL?

Not to rain on the parade, but I just don’t see it. Everyone practically went ape when signing Hiroki Kuroda, and nearly lost their pants when they traded for Michael Pineda. Now, the Pineda trade I love; however he’s still incredibly young and may have an innings limit this year. He might be a year away considering he’s not throwing in the safe confines of Safeco any longer. Kuroda on the other hand is slotted in as the Yankees’ number two pitcher, when he’s a three or four at best. Not sure about you, but I don’t feel comfortable having a 37 year old, traditionally NL pitcher with a career 1.21 WHIP as my number two guy.

Rundown: The bullpen is stacked. Robertson, Soriano and Rivera are sure to shut down games consistently after the sixth inning; and that might be their biggest strength. Jeter should have a solid year and if they keep a close eye on Rodriguez, he can still hit 25 bombs. Robinson Cano is the best second baseman in the game and Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner complete a powerful and speedy combo in the outfield. Still led by ace C.C. Sabathia, expect the Yankees to make another run at a World Series Championship.

 

Tampa Bay Rays             Predicted Finish: 3rd

This was a tough one for me. While I’m picking them third, I still feel they could win close to 90 games and be in the thick of the hunt until the very end.

Questions:

Can the Rays actually hit?

Sounds like a silly question right? This is a team full of major leaguers, of course they can hit! Right? Not so much… With the exception of Evan Longoria (who hit a career low .244 last year, but was playing hurt), there are a lot of question marks here. Here is the projected lineup and their career averages: New catcher Jose Molina: .241. Luke Scott: .264. Carlos Pena: .239. Ben Zobrist: .257. Sean Rodriguez: .229. B.J. Upton: .257. Matt Joyce: .259…… See what I mean? If the Rays want to be an elite team, they will have to rely on their pitching; just like they did in 2011.

How good is Matt Moore?

Speaking of pitching, if Matt Moore is as good as they say, the Rays could have the best staff in baseball. Moore was ranked the #1 prospect by MLB Network and had a 1.92 ERA in the minor leagues last year, winning Minor League Starting Pitcher of the Year. He pitched 10 innings in the post season last October for the Rays and only gave up one run. He could be the new Stephen Strasberg.

Rundown: Tampa could have the best rotation in baseball with Shields, Price, Hellickson, Moore and Niemann. Longoria is sure to have a bounce back year. If Kyle Farnsworth and the rest of the bullpen holds up for another successful campaign, expect the Rays to win close to 90 games again in 2012.


Toronto Blue Jays                       Predicted finish: 4th

Well, they haven’t made the playoffs in 18 years and have been in a futile rebuilding process; but they have great new uniforms!

Questions:

Is Brett Lawrie as good as he looks?

Yes. He seems to be Mike Schmidt or Ryan Braun in that he can rake right out of the gate. He had an injury last season, and even after trying to recover, he came in and put up solid numbers. Now it’s still only been a small sample size, 150 at-bats; but in that time he hit nearly .300 with nine home runs and four triples. Baseball analysts have been drooling, calling him the next elite third baseman.

Did the Jays address their bullpen woes?

In my opinion, yes; and with impressive fashion. Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos did a terrific job bringing in Sergio Santos from the White Sox, who converted 30 of 36 saves in his first season as a closer. And just for good measure, Anthopoulos also brought in Francisco Cordero to join Jason Frasor as hefty backups that will also provide concrete set-up duty. The Jays led all of baseball with 25 blown saves last year; cut that in half and Toronto is in a pennant race.

Rundown: Although they have some real mashers in Lawrie, Lind, Arencibia and Bautista, Ricky Romero is their only sure thing when it comes to their starting rotation. If they want to compete for the division crown they will need to have some nice surprises from their starting guys; which includes Brandon Morrow lowering his ERA.

 

Baltimore Orioles                       Predicted Finish: 5th

I love Buck Showalter. He’s a great manager and motivator, but the guy can only do so much. The team had an MLB worst ERA last season (4.89) and their ‘ace,’ Jeremy Guthrie (only 4.33 ERA) is now a Colorado Rockie.

Questions:

Can they score runs?

Matt Wieters seems to continue his ascent, Adam Jones is incredibly productive; past those two guys it gets ugly fast. J.J. Hardy and Brian Roberts are injury plagued, Nick Markakis will likely miss the start of the season with a lingering injury, Mark Reynolds strikes out about 800 times a season, and their starting first base and DH slots go to Chris Davis and Nolan Reimold – which of course, unless you’re an Orioles fan, you’re saying to yourself: who?? – exactly. Even the hitter friendly Camden Yards won’t be able to cure these hitting woes.

Will the young rotation hold up?

Highly doubtful. And it’s obvious the Baltimore front office feels the same way by bringing in Japanese imports Wei-Yin Chen and Tsuyoshi Wada. Brian Matusz was battling injury last year and was obviously rushed back when he posted one of the worst ERA’s in MLB history: at 10.69. While Jake Arrieta didn’t seem poised for ‘the show’ yet either, Zach Britton looked like the only youngster that could handle big league pitching right now. In the brutal AL East that is full of sluggers and hitter friendly parks, it’s definitely no place for a youngster to learn the ropes of big league pitching. There are just too many questions marks here.

Rundown: As rumors float around, maybe the Orioles should sign Manny Ramirez. At least that would provide some entertainment for a team that looks like a sure bet to finish last. Then again, maybe Manny should just retire and play slow pitch softball in LA like Eric Byrnes did a couple years ago; but that doesn’t pay as well either.

 

Photo Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS