Posted by: Nate | February 14, 2008

2008 Baseball Preview: American League East

With the such an important event today (Pitchers and Catchers reporting to camp, not Valentine’s Day) I figured today would be as good a day as ever to unleash the first in my series of previews for this coming season. I am going to look at one division each entry, giving my predicted order of finish, keys to success for each team, and major off-season moves. Without further ado, let’s get down to it with one of the most exciting divisions in baseball: The American League East!

Predicted Order of Finish:
Boston Red Sox
New York Yankees [Wild Card]
Tampa Bay Rays
Toronto Blue Jays
Baltimore Orioles

Breakdowns:

1. Boston Red Sox: I see the defending World Series Champs as the team to beat in the AL East this year. Their infusion of veteran leadership and young talent is remarkable and they have impact players at almost every position. Also, with the nature of their lineup they can adapt to play multiple styles of baseball, beating you with an offensive outburst, running the bases and playing small ball or shutting you down with strong starting and relief pitching.

Keys to Success:
First and foremost, the Sox need to stay healthy this year. With the shoulder injury to Curt Schilling putting his season in serious jeopardy the rest of the starters will need to remain healthy and effective to keep the team in contention for the division crown. Additionally, any significant injuries to Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz or Jason Varitek could be a death knell for the ’08 campaign. We all saw the effects of Varitek’s injury in 2006 and we all know what Manny or Ortiz missing significant times means for the offensive production and hittable pitches for the other batters.

In addition to avoiding the injury bug, I feel the Sox need to have better seasons this year from Julio Lugo and JD Drew on the offensive end. We cannot expect Mike Lowell to have another career year at the plate and I still would like a larger sample size on Jacoby Ellsbury before I drink the kool-aid too much. Do I think he is a great talent and a huge asset to the team? Absolutely. Do I have more realistic expectations of him then most people do given his September and October performance last year? Certainly. Lugo just cannot justify his average defense at SS without improving on his paltry .237 average last year. While he did provide a good number of RBI’s, that was more a product of opportunity than his good hitting. He probably could have had over 100 if he had been more productive at the plate.

As for Drew, he just needs to be more consistent. He wasn’t awful in 2007 overall, although it would be nice if he bumped up his AVG, OBP and SLG more towards his career averages this year (.284, .390, .500 respectively). His problem was two-fold for me. One was the huge swoon he went into after a strong start in Boston that really tanked his average. Having a more consistent performance offensively from him will help take the pressure of other guys. Secondly was his general lack of effort and sense of the moment. Outisde of his Game 6 grand slam, I got the feeling he was essentially going through the motions last year a lot of the time and kind of mailed in the middle of the season. 140 or so games of solid would be nice to have for your $14 million a year, JD.

Major Off-season Moves:
The Sox largely stood pat this year with their squad from last year. The only real moves were to the bench and bullpen. Bobby Kielty is back on a minor league deal as a 5th OF option and Coco Crisp trade insurance. Sean Casey was brought on for a 1B bench player and left-handed bat. They got David Aardsma from the White Sox for two minor leaguers and re-signed Mirabelli and Javier Lopez. As you can see, not a lot of exciting moves here since the Red Sox didn’t end up swinging a big trade for Johan Santana or other top-flight starters Dan Haren or Erik Bedard. Look for the rookies and other young guys to play a big role in the success of the team this year as they serve as internal upgrades to the team.

2. New York Yankees:
Having the best regular season baseball player in the world in Alex Rodriguez is a huge help and should ensure the AL Wild Card for the Yankees this year. The also bring back the their talented roster of All-Star position players and All-world closer Mariano Rivera. Why then, won’t they catch the Sox this season and regain the division crown? Two reasons mainly in my mind: The departure of Joe Torre and the increasing age of their roster. Jeter, A-Rod, Abreu, Damon, Matsui, Giambi, Posada, Rivera and Mussina are all getting up there in years and expecting them all to remain healthy and effective for the whole season seems like a stretch (especially Damon and Mussina).

Keys to Success:
Clearly with an aging roster the Yankees will need to keep their position players healthy for the bulk of the season to remain in the hunt. Damon and Giambi have had difficult with injuries the past few years, Mussina was so ineffective he was yanked from the rotation last season and Rivera is 38 years old. I don’t see Posada having another monster season this year and A-Rod is going to need the other veterans to step up their play on offense to help him carry the load. Look for Jeter to play a key role this year as well as they transition into the post-Torre era. If he can keep the team motivated and focused, they could be even more dangerous then they already are.

Another big question mark is what the rotation is going to look like and where Joba fits in. Some reports have him getting ready to audition for a rotation spot, while others have him being in the bullpen for the whole year or others yet that have him joining the rotation at the midway point. He was dominant out of the pen last year, so I wouldn’t mess with that success if you don’t need to – much like the Sox just stuck with Papelbon at closer once he showed his affinity for the role. The rotation is strong at the top with Wang, Pettitte and Hughes but the 4 and 5 spots are questionable. What can you expect from Mussina this year? Has he got anything left in the tank? What kind of quality will Ian Kennedy give over the course of a whole season? If Mussina has a reversion to his old self and Kennedy can be effective and doesn’t have an innings cap then fabulous. I just don’t have faith in both of those things happening and Yankees fans have to be looking to avoid another year of the rotating door 5th starter (Clippard, Rasner, Igawa et al ring any bells?) Ultimately I think their questionable back end of the rotation will end up taxing their bullpen (which has it’s own question marks) and be their undoing this season.

Major Off-season Moves:
They re-signed two of their big names in Posada and Rivera to long-term deals, re-negotiated a long-term deal with Alex Rodriguez for 10 years and got Andy Pettitte to come back for another year. All of these retention moves were smart plays by the Yankees for the most part (although I question such long-term deals for Rivera and Posada) and helped them avoid having some really big holes to fill. They made some minor moves to get some bullpen depth, but the most of their off-season was spent retaining the players they already had and being major players in the Johan Santana sweepstakes. Depending on how their season goes for the first half and what assets are available, look for the Yankees to at least be involved in some discussions at the trade deadline.

3. Tampa Bay Rays: This is a really young team with a ton of potential and future star power. They have improved significantly in recent years and I think if they continue to progress and develop as they have that they will be knocking on the door of the playoffs, and subsequently the Sox and Yanks doorsteps very soon. To be honest, if they were in any other division I think they would have a real good shot at making the playoffs this year. Being that they have two of the best 5 teams in baseball in their division, however, they will come up short in that department this year.

Keys to Success:
As with any young team, they need to play with poise and confidence and come together as a team. The more experience they all get, the better they all will be. The major predicators of their success are going to be the performances of some of their upcoming talent. Highly touted prospect Evan Longoria will be given a shot to win the starting job at first base and if he can be consistent and successful that would be a huge asset to the team. Take note though, that he is young (22 years old) and that the highly regarding Alex Gordon struggled last year to get his bearings at the Major League level in Kansas City.

The Rays also need to figure out who is going to be healthy and productive in the RF by committee situation. The perennially injured Rocco Baldelli will be splitting time with Jonny Gomes and Cliff Floyd to fill the DH and RF positions. If Baldelli can stay healthy for more than 20% of a season and Gomes can demonstrate some plate discipline they could have some assets here offensively (and possible at the trading deadline). Up the middle I am not impressed with the Jason Bartlett/Akinori Iwamora SS/2B combo but there are worse middle infields in baseball (San Fran looking your way here).

The biggest question, as always for this team, is pitching. Their 3-5 spots have been huge weaknesses in years past as has their bullpen. They made strides in shoring up these areas by getting Matt Garza from the Twins to be their number 3 starter behind ace Scott Kazmir and developing stud James Shields. The 4-5 spots and the majority of their bullpen is seemingly going to be determined on a throw some shit against the wall and see what sticks. If they can get anything resembling league average performance from their 4-5 starters and middle relievers they will be in great shape.

Major Off-season Moves:

What moves didn’t the Rays make this year? They signed rejuvenated closer Troy Percival and got Garza and Bartlett in a trade with the Twins for often trouble Delmon Young, which really upgraded their pitching staff. They signed Cliff Floyd to bolster their RF/DH situation and got Dan Wheeler as additional bullpen depth. They also re-signed Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Carlos Pena – 3 of their biggest stars from last year. They have also invited a plethora of players to spring training to try and win roster spots to provide depth on the bench for the club.

4. Toronto Blue Jays: The race for third in the AL East is going to be tight this year, as the Jays are a talented club as well. My feeling though is that the youth, energy and talent level of the Rays is just better this year than what Toronto has to offer. There are also some serious question marks that make it hard for me to pick them to finish 3rd.

Keys to Success:
Vernon Wells, Scott Rolen, BJ Ryan and AJ Burnett. These four players will define how the season goes for Toronto in my eyes. Wells had a down year last season and needs to demonstrate that he can rebound and that his 2006 stats were the norm and not the exception. He is an important cog in the offense and his effectiveness will be key for them. Scott Rolen needs to show that he can still play and isn’t completely toast after several rough seasons on the injury front. Additionally he needs to have a better working relationship with John Gibbons than he did with Tony LaRussa in St. Louis. Ryan is only 9 months removed from Tommy John surgery and if he can come back and be effective then the Jays are in good shape, if not, see 2007 for what the disastrous effect his absense had on the back-ed of the bullpen. Finally, if AJ Burnett can have a full season without landing on the DL we have all seen how effective he can be. This hasn’t happened much in the last 5 years and short of Rocco Baldelli, I think he is the second biggest lock in the division to end up on the DL at some point.

In addition to these key players, the 3-4-5 starters (Dustin McGowan, Shawn Marcum and Jesse Litsch) need to continue to develop and be effective as they showed in stretches last year. Having these three be effective and consistent especially will go a long way to giving the Rays, Yankees and Sox a run for their money this season. I ultimately see them coming up short but I wouldn’t be totally surprised to see them in the mix for a long part of this season.

Major Off-season Moves:
Obviously their biggest move was the Scott Rolen for Troy Glaus swap of third basemen which was dubious in my mind in the first place. They also re-signed Scott Downs to a three-year contract, signed INF Marco Scutaro to a two-year contract and re-signed Jason Frasor, Gustavo Chacin, Alex Rios and Reed Johnson to one-year contracts. With the exception of Rios, none of those players are huge names, but all are solid role players who add depth and versatility to the club.

5. Baltimore Orioles: The definition of rebuilding. I have no idea what to expect from this team in 2008 in terms of putridity; they could range form mildly bad to epically horrible and I wouldn’t be surprised either way. Lots of young players will have a chance to showcase their talent here and see what kind of a team they can field this year. Nick Markakis and Adam Jones will be a formidable outfield of the future, and Brian Roberts still plays a strong 2B. Outside of those few bright spots, I forsee a lot of issues for the Orioles.

Keys to Success:
Markakis will need to continue to develop and the team is banking on Jones flourishing with an everyday job. Coupled with Roberts (who has been quietly rumored in trade talks with the Cubs) and Melvin Mora that’s the start of a decent lineup. Things get interesting from there as Luke Scott, Luis Hernandez and Kevin Millar aren’t scaring anyone offensively.

From a pitching standpoint, they need Daniel Cabrera to put it together this season and couple his strong arm and repitoire of good pitches with the ability to consistently find the strike zone. Jeremy Guthrie and Adam Loewen will need to have strong seasons at the front end of the rotation and the O’s will need to get respectable production from their fourth and fifth starters (whom I would imagine will have some variability over the season as some young arms get some audition starts).

The bullpen has some veteran arms in Denys Baez (tabbed closer for opening day), Chad Bradford and newly acquired George Sherrill as well as a wealth of young or unproven arms that could go either way. If the bullpen can prove to be serviceable and they can get some decent innings from their rotation, the offense should be capable of scoring some runs and making some things happen on the base-paths. Being that they are a young team rebuilding in arguably the toughest division in baseball it could be a long year for Baltimore fans.

Major Off-season Moves:
Two of the bigger moves this off-season were made by the Orioles when they sent stars Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard out of town. In return, they got Adam Jones, George Sherrill, Troy Patton, Luke Scott and a number of prospects. Neither of those deals really floored me, although they got decent value on Tejada seeing as he is in decline and was named in the Mitchell Report. They made a number of other smaller moves mostly related to depth and roster slots, although also of note is that it seems like half the team is playing on a one year contract.

I’ll continue to break down the other divisions around the league in the coming days as Spring Training continues. Feel free to comment on my predictions & outlooks or make a suggestion for future postings.

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Responses

  1. Go Yanks!

  2. Without a doubt the predictions of an amateur!

  3. no way tampa bay rays win more games than toronto. not gonna happen..

  4. We’ll see how things shake out in the East this year. I think it’s going to be an interesting battle all season between the top 4 clubs. I’m still standing by the Rays over Toronto though.


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