Thursday, February 26, 2009

The All-Inclusive AL East Preview

In lieu of a big baseball preview like I did last year, I am going to do it in parts this year. Today, I'm going to take a look at the AL East because I am guessing that is what you will be most interested in. From there, I'll do some other quick previews of non-AL East/Red Sox stuff. For now though, we keep it local.

AL East

The Bottom Tier

From where I sit, Baltimore is clearly the worst team in this division. "Worst" is a relative term however because I really don't think they are that bad. Yes, their pitching will probably be pretty bad as is bound to happen when Jeremy Guthrie looks like your opening day starter, but on the flip side their offense should again be pretty good. Did you realize that their offense scored just seven fewer runs than the Yankees did last year and eight more than the AL Champion Rays? Exactly. They are a good offensive squad. Maybe Aubrey Huff won't post another .912 OPS this year, but they still house a great top of the order hitter/speedster in Brian Roberts and also probably the AL's most underrated hitter in Nick Markakis.

Markakis is just 25 years old and has seen both his OBP and slugging percentage increase each year since he arrived to the majors in 2006. Fantasy nerds already are well aware of him, but for the rest of you, don't be surprised by a .320/.420/25/110 year from him. In other words, he is what JD Drew could be if he stayed healthy and consistent from April through October.

One other little thing I want to point out with the Orioles is Adam Jones. Jones was the centerpiece of the Erik Bedard trade which occurred before last season. Last year he got off to a slow start and then picked up in the middle of the season before being slowed again with an injury in August. When he went well though, he went really, really well and a 20/20 season from him should not be out of the question. So, in short the Orioles have a good amount of talent on offense, but nothing in the pitching department meaning they will be one of those teams that can beat any team in any series at any time or could be a candidate to get swept and blown out if their bats go silent. Think of the Tigers last year and pencil them in for 75 wins or so and some late season friskiness.

The other bottom tier team in the division has to be Blue Jays. I use the "bottom tier" team loosely as I fully expect the Blue Jays to win about 85 games or so and give the Red Sox all kinds of fits. With that being said, the Blue Jays could very well take a major step back and supplant the Orioles as the division's fifth place team. Why?

For starters, it's their starters. You know Roy Halladay will be a horse, win around 20 with an ERA in the low 3s and be close to the top in the AL in innings pitched. After him there are a ton of questions. Their best returning pitcher Dustin McGowan could miss the season. Their second best returning pitcher, Shaun Marcum is in the same boat. And lest we forget, they lost AJ Burnett. What this all means is that the potential for some sort of an abyss after Roy Halladay is quite strong.

Their offense meanwhile won't be anything special either. Yes they have a budding star in Alex Rios but after him you really only need to worry about Vernon Wells, and he seemingly only shows up to play the Sox. Therefore, with the Jays I say I think they can win 85 or so because they always seem to (they've averaged 81 wins/year over the last 5 years and 85 over the past 3) but by the same token if they fall back to the 70 or so win range I really would not be too shocked either.

Final on the Record Prediction:

5. Orioles (74-88)

4. Blue Jays (83-79)

The Big Boys

Without really stopping and devoting a ton of thought to the matter, you would probably rate the Big Three in the AL East as New York, Boston, Tampa Bay. If I were to ask you for a reason, you may say something like, "well the Yankees signed every free agent under the sun this winter, the Red Sox are the Red Sox, and the Rays were probably a bit of a fluke last year". I would respond to you, "fair enough, but I'd actually flip your order and use that as mine".

3) Yankees

Biggest Strength

Rotation. Say what you will about AJ Burnett and how he could be Jaret Wright 2.0 or how CC Sabathia is vying to be the first pitcher in history that outweighs an average NFL offensive lineman but Burnett struck out more than a batter an inning last year in 221.1 IP and CC is just one season removed from winning an AL Cy Young. Oh, and Chien Mien Wang averaged 210 innings and 19 wins in 2006-07 before getting hurt in a fluke injury last year. Add in the high upside young guy (Joba) and the old stalwart (Pettitte) and you have pretty nice looking front 5. The only real question here however is can they do it in October. Sabathia and Wang both have awful postseason track records and Burnett has never thrown a postseason inning. This could be a great rotation from April through September but if it falters in October, will anybody remember a few great starts in July or August? Not in New York.

Biggest Weakness

Their defense, especially up the middle figures to be pretty bad. Jeter's lack of range has been well documented, Cano is known as an adventure at second, and it still remains to be seen if Posada can actually throw from behind the plate to second. Their outfield defense might be average, but if teams can run rampant on Posada and are able to eek out a few extra hits thanks to the Jeter/Cano tag-team it could turn into a semi-big problem. Remember that the 2004 Sox did not really take off until they replaced Nomar with the OC and a big reason for that - beyond the clubhouse issues - was that Nomar was just brutal with the glove. Never underestimate how much bad defense can submarine a good team.

Hidden Weakness

Last year the Yankees finished 7th in the AL in runs scored. This year, while they added Mark Teixeira they did lose Bobby Abreu and Jason Giambi. Those two combined for a little over 1200 plate appearances and hit 52 home runs with a .363 OBP. Yes, Teixeira will make up a chunk of that, but not all of it. The rest will fall on the shoulders of Xavier Nady and Nick Swisher. Maybe they are up to the task and maybe they are not, but even with a huge ticket addition, getting back to the top 3 or so in the AL in runs scored may be a tougher task than it seems.

Final Thoughts

The Yankees could probably win 100. They could also win a bit less than that. Like the Red Sox, they are an aging/veteran team with few "upside" guys AKA guys who potentially could perform better than anticipated. Of course the flip side to that is that they have a ton of really good players so even without a lot of upside, they still are looking pretty good. In the end though, my main reason for placing them in the three hole of this group is that I feel their defensive limitations plus an offense that may not be as good as anticipated are the largest of the aggregate concerns of this group of three. That being said, if everything goes right and they do find some upside guys, they could definitely take the division and maybe do it with relative ease.

2) Red Sox

I'm going to motor through this because I have already said countless times my thoughts on them.

Biggest Strength

The rotation and bullpen are loaded. Their three top starters are all under 30, they have a good fifth starter type in Wakefield, and it seems as if they could receive good to great contributions from the Penny/Smoltz combo. Sure it would be nice if Dice learned how to throw at least six innings a start, but that kind of is what it is. There is nothing worse than watching a Dice-K start (...and doesn't that just suck, wasn't one of the main attractions of bringing him on board how FUN it would be to watch him work??) and that probably won't change.

What else excites me about the staff is that not only do they have the established veterans mentioned above, they also have Michael Bowden, Clay Bucholz, and maybe even Justin Masterson (if they shift him from the pen). This entire group can potentially contribute in a pleasantly surprising type of way assuming the inevitable missed starts of all the starters at some point or another during the season. This is a huge advantage to have and as fun as it may have been, this means we don't have to worry about the David Pauleys of the world getting thrust into a few meaningful games down the road.

Oh yeah, and yes I think the bullpen should be good as well. Manny Delcarmen is still a major enigma but between Ramon Ramirez, Saito, Masterson, Okajima, and of course Papelbon I think things from the seventh inning on should be in good hands. Never underestimate the power of a good to great bullpen because if you can essentially play six or seven inning games with good starters at the front end, that is a HUGE advantage.

On a more minor note, the defense is shaping up to be pretty good and that should by no means be underrated.

Biggest Weakness

They are still a bat short. This has not changed. Right now, you know roughly what you are going to get from Jason Bay, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia, and that is about it. Beyond that you could have some pleasant surprises (bounce back year from Papi, emergence of Ellsbury and Lowrie, 145 good games from JD Drew, a 20/100 campaign from Mike Lowell, mediocre production from the catcher position) or you could have a lot of awful surprises (pretty much the exact opposite of everything previously stated). Logic dictates that it will probably end up in the middle somewhere, but it is still always a bit nerve-wracking going into a season with that many Peter Gammons specials AKA, "IF.....can do....., and IF....can do....., THEN they can win the World Series".

Final Thoughts

I put the Sox number two here under the impression that their staff will be as good as anticipated and their lineup will be slightly better than I think it will be. If either of these do not live up to that billing then they easily drop to third and probably win "only" 88 games or so.

1) Rays

Biggest Strength

Let's see, their best offensive players (Carl Crawford, BJ Upton, Carlos Pena, and Evan Longoria) all either missed sizable time due to or played through injuries during good chunks of the year. Probably their most talented pitcher, Scott Kazmir also battled injuries and it took future Josh Beckett, Matt Garza a couple of months to figure out how good he really was. Oh, and they did not have phenom David Price until September. Long story short, there is actually a TON of room for improvement for the team who won the division last year.

And did I mention that they acquired via free agency and trade, Pat Burrell and Matt Joyce to fill their biggest offensive weak spot (DH/RF). Last year, Joyce and Burrell combined for 45 home runs and a .360 OBP in 911 plate appearances. If you figure 1,100 plate appearances for them that equates to 54 homers for this year. Last year they had a platoon of Eric Hinske, Gabe Kross, and Cliff Floyd for these spots who in 1,044 plate appearances posted a .333 OBP with 44 home runs. Obviously, the Burrell/Joyce combo is a marked improvement making the Rays offensive ceiling for this year all the higher.

Biggest Weakness

On paper, this is their bullpen. Yes, they had a shutdown bullpen last year, but in 2007 it was awful. As so happens with bullpens, one year a 'pen can be great and the next it can be awful. If that sounds totally trivial well that is because it is. Bullpens fluctuate like crazy so assuming that a bullpen that was awful one year then good again the next will continue to be good is a risky proposition. And that doesn't even mention the attrition rate in relievers who always seem to blow out their elbows. Bottom line, I think the Rays are about as balanced a squad as you will find in baseball as we head into the season and if they potentially have one slight armor chink, it's the bullpen.

And then there are these two side thoughts:

1) How do they play with expectations? It's a lot tougher when you are supposed to be good then when you come up from the bottom. Excuses that may have worked in the past will not work in the present. Still, this seems like a pretty solid bunch and I doubt that this will be an issue. You never know though.

2) Starting in 2000, only 4 times has a team that played in the World Series the year before made it back even as far as it's league's Championship Series the following year. That is win or lose in the WS folks. Pretty crazy isn't it. In case you are wondering, those teams were the 2001 Yankees (previous WS winner, lost in WS), 2004 Yankees (previous WS loser, lost in ALCS), 2005 Cardinals (previous WS loser, lost in NLCS), and 2008 Red Sox (previous WS winner, lost in ALCS). Anyway, the odds are stacked highly against them in this regard, mainly because playing 180 or so games over 7 months can wreak havoc on a pitching staff. If any team can overcome this, I'd think it would be a young bunch like the Rays, but it certainly will not be easy.

Final Thoughts

I think this is the best team in baseball. In any other division I would be predicting triple-digit victories for them. In the AL East, I say 98 and the division crown.

So that is that. This turned out to be way longer than I planned - not to mention that it took me way longer to put it together - so I hope you at least found it interesting and informative.

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