Wednesday, March 28, 2007

MLB Preview- AL East

"Bass in the face means peace see ya later."

So with Spring just around the corner, and my National Title winner gone in the second round (again, thank you D.J. Augustin!...that guy would have been more productive doing summersaults up and down the court...yikes!), I'm thinking it's about time to get into some actual baseball previews. I am going to break each team down and tell you why I think they could be contenders or pretenders. Hopefully, this will be a helpful guide as the season wears on to how things could shake down. This is the first of six parts, each covering a particular division, with the final update having my predictions for the playoffs. So...onward and upward:

Writer/Editor/Publisher Note: This article was started on March 20, and since then, Jonathan Papelbon has been named the closer, so disregard the question about who's closing games out for the Sox (thank God).

AL East:
Team On A Whole: Well I mean, I had to start here. This one is probably going to be a little more in-depth than the other teams, but then again, I am a total "homer," I have no idea how many people read this (although I hear it maybe getting into the 10's), and I'm not getting paid, so why not be biased? Anyway, here's how I stand on the Sox. Great starting rotation, and after that, pretty much everything is suspect (Ortiz and Ramirez being the obvious exceptions). However, with that being said, I still say they are somehow going to win something in the vacinity of 90-95 games. The reason I say that is because, on a whole, it seemed to me like the Red Sox were the only ones to take a step forward, while the others stood in place (possible exception is Baltimore). For the three other teams, they basically stood pat with their teams. The Sox were not satisfied in their third place finish last year, and decided to do something about it, shelling out big money for free agents, and holding on to their core of young players. While it remains to be seen if the Sox were wrong in doing this, the fact remains that the new ownership has done everything in its power to try and salvage the farm system and not go too crazy as far as trading for veterans. Right now, I see the Sox winning the division (yeah, I know, what else is new from me) purely based on the starting pitching. Oh they have question marks, but then again, who doesn't?

Infield: Easily the biggest question mark as far as position players go is right here. With two new-comers in Pedroia and Lugo, and a light hitting first baseman in Youkilis, it's clear to see that this will be a unit that will struggle on offense. The only real solid guy out there as far as offense goes is Mike Lowell, who had a surprisingly good season last year (.284/20/80). As far as defense goes, however, look for this unit to continue being strong despite losing Alex Gonzalez to the Reds. If they are able to save the kind of runs that they did last year, it should come close to compensating for their lack of offense.

Outfield: Another set of question marks hits here with Coco Crisp and newly-acquired J.D. Drew. It seems as though the Sox have already made up their minds in that this will most likely be Coco's last year in Boston unless he is able to produce some eye-popping numbers. With the trio of Torii Hunter, Andruw Jones, and Ichiro hitting the free-agent market next year, Coco is goign to have to do a whole lot to keep his job in the friendly confines. I have always said that signing Drew was a huge mistake, but my hopes are that he proves me wrong, and is somehow able to stay healthy for an entire year. And in know it will be an adventure, but Manny will hit .300, hit 40 homers, drive in 130 (yawn). Seriously, I know the guy's a headache and all, but when he leaves, what the hell are we going to do to replace that?

Starting Pitching: Right now, on paper, it doesn't get any better than this (I mean I love Wily Mo, but could you imagine if we still had Bronson on the Although Dice-K is unproven, he's going to be good...really good for about the first month or so. After that, who knows? Once teams get a second look at him, that's when you're going to see if this really did pay off. Schill is going to be solid as always, Papelbon still has to work on his longevity in the pitch count, and Wake is probably the most solid #5 pitcher going (and don't forget about Jon Lester...they say he's back and better than ever). But the real question still remains Josh Beckett. As the once heir-apparent to the throne of "ace," Beckett did have a 15-win season last year, but managed an ERA of 5, which is not going to cut it in this division. Again, he needs to work on his non-fastball pitches, as he was able to blow people away in his first go-around, but stumbled mid-season, and wound up being mostly ineffective after the All-Star break. If Beckett can capture some of the magic that won him the MVP of the 2003 World Series, this could be one of the best pitching staffs to come down the line in quite some time.

Bullpen: And here come the big, big question marks. So may bodies, so little room, and even smaller is the amount of guys who could actually be considered "closer material." Personally, you have to let Timlin, if he is healthy, start off the year closing. I know supposedly Piniero has the inside track because of his relief efforts in the second part of the year last year with Seattle, but he has never played in this role before, and he certainly hasn't done it in the greatest city in the whole freggin' world (thank you, I'll be here all night). Timlin, however, has. He's not the most solid guy, but compared to everyone else they could try and throw in there right now, this guy is a rock. This clearly will be the story of the year for the Sox (that and the unforgettable Mr. David Jonathan Drew I presume). Can they figure out their closer situation in time? Will Craig Hansen step up and claim the role before the season gets out? If you're like this guy, you have to just hope that they are able to sort everything out before it is too late. As far as middle relief, they have plenty, and they will wear teams out with the combinations of lefties and righties they can throw in there.

Overall: I like the Sox to win the A.L. East. They have so much potential and so many young guys coming up real soon that I can't help but feel almost blindly optimistic about this year's team.

Record: 92-70

New York Yankees:
And of course, how could I not do these guys second. Ah yes, the Bronx Bombers. Well, I will say this: this team wins...a lot. You can blame whatever, or whoever you want to, but the fact remains...these guys are good. They have enough talent to wipe you out in a series (see last year's Boston Massacre II). However, the only way this team will have enough gas to make it deep into October is if they get some kind of infusion of youth on the team. Guys like Melky Cabrera, Robinson Cano, and Chien-Ming Wang were able to add a serious boost that helped propel the Yankees into their 387th division title in a row (sure feels like it's been that long). However, by staying quiet in the offseason, other than signing Andy Pettitte, the Yankees have shown that they believe in the team they have right now. They dealt off a grumpy Gary Sheffield to the Tigers for three minor-leaguers, two of which could be pro ready by the end of the year.

Infield: Of course, the captain is still there, and from all accounts, he is looking better than ever. Outside of that, it starts to get a little more interesting. The hot corner has been hotter than ever over the offseason, as A-Rod officially opened the flood gates to a never-ending supply of trash talk from every point in the universe. Fans, media, coaches, players, the owner...all were in the mix of pouncing on him. A-Rod will put up numbers, but seriously, is that really going to matter? The only way for him to come back into some of the good graces he felt at the beginning of his Yankee tenure will be to play up to his level come October. Until then, let the booing continue. First base is a question mark because the Yanks would like to have Giambi play more at DH than at first, because he is a defensive liability over there. He seems as though he is actually physically unable to play first anymore, so look for a Josh Phelps/Doug Mientkiewicz combination to make most or all of the starts. At second, you're looking at one of the brightest prospects in the game at Robinson Cano, so there are no worries there.

Outfield: Tragic was the news about Bernie Williams being released, as he was one of the class acts in baseball. Last year, the Yanks picked up Bobby Abreu from the Phillies, which made Sheffield expendable. Abreu has seen his power numbers get completely smashed after setting the single round record in the Home Run Derby a year and a half ago. Abreu went 161 at bats last year in between home runs, but with the short porch in right, Abreu should see his power numbers go up this year. Johnny Damon is the rock of the outfield. He will get you timely hits, power and RBIs, and SBs. He will always play his heart out for you. Matsui is once again healthy, and is one of the most dangerous hitters in the league. Having him back will really give this team the boost that it was lacking in his absence last year.

Starting Pitching: It's not all roses for the Yanks however, as their starting pitching is beyond questionable. Chien-Ming Wang had a breakout performance last year, but is there anyway he can duplicate that success? Or will he end up just like Aaron Small and be a bust? With the departure of Randy Johnson, the Yanks went out and got the lefty they need in old friend Andy Pettitte. Paying him $16 million a year was probably too much, but for a team looking for anything to remind them of their late nineties championship years, it seems to me that money was certainly not an issue. Pettitte has health problems of his own, but when healthy, he has shown that he is one of the best starting lefties of the last decade. The Yanks also re-upped with Mike Mussina for two more years. The "Moose" has been the anchor of the staff since his arrival from the O's in 2001. Kei Igawa, the Japanese import, may turn out to be a great signing, but, just like with Dice-K, it is a questionable proposition. With Igawa, people know even less about him, so the gamble is even higher. The real question has to do with Phillip Hughes, the top prospect in the organization. Can a 20 year old take the ball at Yankee Stadium, wearing the pinstripes, and be successful. It's too soon to tell, but it seems that the Yankees have shown tremendous optimism in Hughes, and shuffling him into the rotation late in the year is definitely not out of the question.

Bullpen: Just like the last decade, there is no question who is closing out games...but how can they get the ball from the starters to the Sandman? I have always been a big fan of Scott Proctor. He has shown great potential and has a tremendous upside. I believe the Yanks will use him as their eighth inning man to set up Rivera. The hard-throwing Kyle Farnsworth still needs to work on his mechanics and his accuracy, as they both troubled him last year. Outside of that, it is a complete "wait and see" attitude that may end up hurting them. As seen in the past, the Yanks have a tendency of overworking their relievers, meaning that once they reach September and October, there is nothing left in the tank.

Overall: The Yankees are going to be incredibly tough to get around in the AL East. If they win another division title, I will most certainly not be surprised. However, I feel like their bullpen will be a major question mark and will be very inconsistent. They still have a lineup to turn your lights out, and they will be carrying the "Bronx Bombers" this season. I definitely see a playoff trip for them, whether it be through the wild card or winning the division outright.

Record: 90-72

The Blue Jays have made tremendous strides over the last couple years, and landed them a second place finish last year in the East. J.P. Riccardi has been given the reigns and an enlarged payroll, and with it, he has brought in some major free agents (Burnett, Ryan, Glaus, Overbay). In addition, the Jays signed their franchis player, Vernon Wells, to a seven-year, $126 million contract, so you know that they are not just keeping this mentality for the short-run. The Jays also went out and got themselves a legitamate (not bad, not bad) cleanup hitter in Frank Thomas.

Infield: The corners are strong with Overbay and Glaus, but with Glaus, I will always question his health, especially when he plays half of his games on Astroturf. I do like Aaron Hill at second. I thought he showed tremendous upside last year, and I believe in his second full season, he will hit right around .300/10/80. At the six-spot, you have the aging Royce Clayton, who will serve as their nine-hitter. Clayton looks to be a desperation pickup in my opinion. A guy to be a stop-gap for this year.

Outfield: Again, Wells is the guy out there. He is an incredible fielder and is a five-tool player. Wells was in the MVP discussion last year, but with a gigantic contract extension, will his numbers start to drop? It's different for everyone, but Toronto needs Wells big time, as he is the leader of that team. An up-and-comer is Alex Rios, who has shown amazing potential out in right. Batting behind Frank Thomas in the five-hole, Rios will get plenty of RBI opportunities. Reed Johnson is out and left, and is extremely inconsistent. Top prospect Adam Lind may be getting some looks and might even platoon the position with Johnson.

Starting Pitching: When you talk Jays' starters, it all starts with former Cy Young winner Roy Halladay, who has anchored that staff for years. Expect another strong season from Halladay, who has been one of the most consistent starters in the AL over the last few years. After that, you will see a bit of a drop off. A.J. Burnett, last year's prized acquisition, had a respectable 10-8 record with a 3.98 ERA. Then, you have the other 3/5, Gustavo Chacin, Tomo Ohka, and Shaun Marcum, which will probably be the downfall of this team. Chacin is inconsistent, and in this division, you need at least three quality starters, and Chacin is far from "quality." Ohka was good in Montreal/D.C., but is not nearly good enough to survive in the East. And Marcum is unproven, and only had limited experience in his first season last year. The Jays are still rebuilidng, and if they are looking to contend for at least a wild card birth, they are going to have to go out before the deadline and get a quality #3 starter, because in a short series, having three starters who are dependable is priceless.

Bullpen: This is another team that needs to figure out how to get the ball to their closer. B.J. Ryan proved all doubters wrong last year, saving 38 games with a 1.37 ERA. However, the Blue Jays were unable to keep their best middle reliever, Justin Speier, to the Angels. Now, the Jays will be relying on their young prospects, most notably Brandon League, to try and pick up the slack for the departed. It could be a bumpy ride at first, but much like the Red Sox, I like the influx of youth here. With young arms comes added stamina, and coupling that with the experience of playing teams like the Sox and the Yankees 19 times a year, this could be a group that has a lot of potential to be good for a long time.

Overall: The Jays will struggle this year undoubtedly. However, they will rock the cover out of the ball with the 3-4-5 of Vernon Wells, Frank Thomas, and Troy Glaus. The Jays desperately need one of two things to happen: either make a trade, or wait on their young guys to mature. Knowing Riccardi, I believe he will keep his young guys, but with that comes consequences. They will be stuck in limbo this year, but will most likely finish around .500 due in large part to Halladay and their bruising offense.

Record: 83-79

Tampa Bay:
This is possibly the most intriguing team in all of baseball, and I don't even think they will amount to anything. The reason I say "intriguing" is that the Rays have so many great, young prospects on the team that seeing how they progress over this season will be a very interesting scenario indeed. The problem with having a plethora of young talent is that you know it's not going to last, at least with this cast of characters. But for now, this should be a fun team to watch.

Infield: The big offseason move for the Rays happened when they went out and got Akinori Iwamura, a prized prospect from Japan, and signed him to a three year deal. Iwamura has apparently been having issues as far as plate discipline in his first go around with major league pitchers in Spring Training, but as the year wears on, Iwamura could have the potential to be a 25-30 homer threat. Another move the Rays made was giving Ty Wigginton a contract extension and moving him to first. Wigginton had a surprisingly good season last year, and will be looking to build off of that. As far as up the middle, you are looking at huge question marks in Jorge Cantu at second and Ben Zobrist at short. Cantu seemingly had a bit of a "power outage" last year, watching all of his power numbers decline. However, most of that was due to the fact he only played 107 games, so it will be interesting to see if Cantu can not only stay healthy but rebound from last year. As far as Zobrist, not much is known about him other than the fact that he has had a good spring and that he is known for his defense. Also, remember B.J. Upton if the Rays hold onto him (Upton's been on the trading block for the entire offseason), because he is listed as the backup at second, short, and third.

Outfield: As said by many before me, this is probably the best young outfield in all the land. Carl Crawford has steadily improved his ranking as far as the best players in the game, and is now at least in the top 15, maybe even in the top 10 in all of baseball. Crawford is one of the most dynamic players in the game, and showed some power last year with 18 homers. Still, Crawford will always be known for his speed, stealing an AL high 58 bases last year. Also, Crawford hit .308. It's a coin flip between Jose Reyes and Crawford as to who is the best leadoff hitter in the game. Rocco Baldelli, coming off of injuries that sidelined him for a year and a half, returned last year, and in 92 games, showed unbelievable skills at the plate, putting up a .302/16/57 and also swiped 10 bases. Look for Baldelli to have a huge impact on this lineup. Speaking of impact players, nothing more can probably be written about Delmon Young. Although right now, he is probably known as the guy who chucked a bat at an umpire, Young could easily win Rookie of the Year this upcoming season. Young has dominated on every level so far, and he has also shown tremendous plate discipline to go along with his tremendous power and his speed on the bases. Young could be able to have a breakout year if he is able to harness his personal demons.

Starting Pitching: You'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who is as young and has as much promise than Scott Kazmir. In what could be argued as one of the top 10 most lobsided trades in baseball history (Kazmir to the Rays and Victor Zambrano to the Mets), Kazmir has become the clear-cut ace of the staff. In just his third season at the tender age of 23, Kazmir has turned into one of the best left-handers in the game. He will be the rock of this staff again, and is poised to have another huge year. However, after Kazmir, the Rays literally have nothing going for them. Between Fossum, Seo, Shields, and Ryu, Tampa does not have anything close to reliable. Again, look for the Rays to start calling up their prospects around June or July to take over for these guys. You never know, they may strike gold. With all of those first rounders waiting in the wings, Tampa could have a potential #2 or #3 guy in the farm system.

Bullpen: Seth McClung will take over the closer role from Brian Meadows this year. McClung has had limited experience in this role, and has not had any kind of success yet. It will be interesting to see if he can hang onto the role for an entire season. Shawn Camp could prove to be a more reliable option than McClung. This could be an intriguing set of circumstances. If they usher in Camp to become the closer, his trade value would instantly go up, making him very useful to a contender for a strectch run into the postseason, and if history has shown us anything, it's that relievers are in big demand come July.

Overall: Tampa will struggle, and there is no doubt about that, but on this team, you are looking at a nucleus of some of the best young talent in the game. Will Tampa try and build off of them? From what I have gathered, it appears as though Tampa is still content with being a major league AAA team, getting their players big league experience, and then letting them walk or trading them off to get a whole new breed of young talent. If Tampa is going to make a run anytime soon, they better start ponying up for some experienced free agents. They have shown somewhat of a commitment by signing Baldelli and Crawford to lengthy extensions, but still, they need some kind of veteran leadership to move that ballclub in the right direction.

Record: 68-94

And then there are the boys from Camden Yards. The O's tried a couple of years ago to try and make a franchise changing move in acquiring Miguel Tejada via free agency. Although Miggy has put up his usual amazing stats, there seems to be a lot of unrest about his impact on the clubhouse. First, there was the whole B-12 shot conspiracy, then there were the trade demands (by the way, the phone lines at Yawkey Way are always open), so Tejada, although still amazing, is not the leader that Baltimore was hoping they would get. However, Baltimore did make some moves in the offseason that I particularly liked, so although I'm not expecting a whole lot out of them this year, I think that the O's made a step in the right direction, and hopefully they will continue their pursuit of filling their needs in the future.

Ramon Hernandez could be one of the most underrated players in the league. I'm serious on this. He had such a quiet season (.275/23/91) that you would think such productivity from a catcher would have been a little more newsworthy. Hernandez should have a similar year this year, and if Baltimore can parlay his success, they could have their catcher for the next four or five years. Newly acquired Aubery Huff should provide some pop, but Camden is not exactly the most "hitter friendly" park for a lefty, so it will be a total "wait and see" as far as how effective he will be. B-Rob (Gamecock!) at second should have another fantastic year. He is turning himself into quite the leadoff hitter, however, he needs to work on his OBP (.347) so that he can do his damage on the basepaths (20+ steals four years in a row). Of course the O's have a rock at short in Tejada. I don't even have to mention his accolades. This guy is just a big time player, and one of my personal favorties. Melvin Mora has seen his numbers decline in the past few years. However, Baltimore has no one outside of Chris Gomez, so his job security should be quite high right now.

Outfield: This is a very underrated unit. Nick Markakis is a very promising player out in right. I can see him hitting right around 30 homers and about 90-100 RBIs. Also, he hits for average, so he really is an all-around great hitter. Then there is Corey Patterson. Patterson was fantastic last year, and has grown accustomed to hitting in the nine-spot. I just want to make this observation before I continue breaking this team down. I believe that you should put one of your best hitters at the ninth spot in your lineup. Here's the thing: Most teams generally go 1-6 and then there is the "bottom of the order," which has also meant that you are probably going to have the bottom-rung hitters in the 7-8-9. But why not bump the lineup up one spot? Think about it. Take your six hitter and move him to the nine-spot. You will be able to create more opportunities for the top of the lineup this way. In my ideal lineup, I would put a guy with a high OBP down in the nine-hole. It's time to think outside the box and do something different here. Anyway, that's just my thoughts on that. The reason I bring this up is that Patterson would most likely be a leadoff hitter on a majority of other teams, but the O's despite knowing that Patterson is quicker than Roberts, put him ninth so guys like Mora, Markakis, and Tejada will have opportunities to drive in runs. Jay Payton is out in left. The O's signed him in the offseason because they felt they were not getting enough production out of Jay Gibbons. Payton has shown that, given an opportunity, he can make an impact. However, Payton could be out the first two to three weeks of the season with a hamstring injury, so Gibbons will be the starter for the time being.

Starting Pitching: Erik Bedard has been hurt in the past, but it seems as though he has shaken off the injury bug for now. Bedard has long been touted as the ace of the future, and now in his second year as the #1 guy, Bedard has a real possibility to win about 17-18 games this year. Next in line is Daniel Cabrera...I mean does he even know what he's going to do? Seemingly, Cabrera would strike out 12 one start, and then in his next, he would walk seven and throw four wild pitches. I mean this could probably be the biggest test for Leo Mazzone (pitching coach) he's ever had to face. I think one of the things that makes Cabrera so dangerous is that he is so unpredictable. When a batter is standing up there, he has no idea what to expect. Is the ball going on the outside corner, or at his head? If Cabrera can somewhat grasp his control, he would be amazingly dangerous off of the rubber (98 MPH fastball...and he can keep it up for seven innings). The guy reminds me of a rawer version of the Randy Johnson when he was on the Mariners. No one really knew what to expect, and he had the velocity and sometimes, could be a bit erratic at times...not like Cabrera, but he could be a little off base. Still, he was able to get strikeouts because of his unpredictability. In the three spot is Jaret Wright. Here's a guy who has shown some of what made him great with the Indians back in the day, but has not been able to keep his stuff fresh for a long period of time. Adam Loewen is entering his second year, and has looked very good this Spring. Steve Traschel rounds out the group. Traschel is a journeyman and is probably just holding down the fort for a guy like Hayden Penn, one of the top prospects in the whole league.

Bullpen: This is where it starts to get really intriguing. At the end, you have one of my early favorites for breakout performance of the year in Chris Ray. I saw him against the Sox last year, and he impressed the hell out of me. He has great stuff, and he's also got the control to go along with it. I expect Ray to have in the neighborhood of around 35-40 saves this year, with a sub 2.00 ERA. The O's also made tremendous strides in bolstering their middle relief this offseason. Danys Baez is coming over from Atlanta and will be called upon to be the eighth inning man to set up Ray. Baez was the former Tampa closer and another guy I have seen a lot of. The Sox had plenty of interest in Baez throughout the years, but the O's made a surprising push for Baez, and landed him for a cool $19 million over the next three years. Chad Bradford and Scott Williamson will bring valuable leadership to the 'pen, and Jamie Walker will add the lefty element coming over from Detroit. Overall, the O's made great strides to help out Ray in his quest to become one of the best relievers in the game.

Overall: I like what the Orioles are doing...really. They added some quality arms to the bullpen, and with their young core of Bedard, Markakis, Cabrera, and Ray, along with veterans like Tejada and Mora, Baltimore could be smelling roses in the near future. But for right now, I'm not so sure if they will be able to make any kind of impact in this division, especially when you consider who are the other teams there. I mean even Tampa is going to be a tough game for anyone this year. So a last place finish, although never a good thing, is probably what the O's are looking at this year. However, they will be getting strong very soon, and again, they will need to bolster their starting rotation, or else, it will be a waiting game for them to wait on guys like Penn and Brandon Erbe to come through the farm system.

Record: 66-96

Stay tuned for the wild AL Central, one of the most unpredictable divisions in all of baseball. Take care. Peace.


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