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Friday, March 30, 2012

2012 MLB Preview: AL East

Every year there is talk about how baseball should approach realignment to make it more fair for the other teams in the American League East division.  "Who can compete when you've got teams tripling the payroll of the other teams?" they say.  The Yankees and Red Sox are two of the most successful teams in baseball right now and it's no coincidence that they're the two big spenders, too. But frugal Tampa Bay has had success right along with them of late and looks to be there again this season as well.  Now Toronto's rebuild is beginning to bear fruit and after finishing with a winning record last season, the team looks to take the next step with some exciting young players.  Baltimore is in the middle of what seems like a never ending rebuilding process but there are beginning to be signs of changes for the positive.  All of these factors make this a division to watch this summer.  The Yankees and Red Sox are not invulnerable meaning maybe it's someone else's time for a change.  This should end all that nonsense about "fairness" and realignment.

Baltimore Orioles
2011 Record: 69-93
2012 Estimated Team Salary: $97 million
Highest Paid Player: Nick Markakis - $12 million
Best Player: Catcher Matt Wieters broke out last season but I believe the best is yet to come.
Best Pitcher: Jake Arrieta gets the nod over Brian Matusz here simply because of how awful Matusz was last season.
Say Hello To: Darren O'Day RP, Taylor Teagarden C, Endy Chavez OF, Jai Miller OF, Wilson Betemit 3B, Armando Galarraga SP, Ronny Paulino C, Jason Hammel SP, Matt Lindstrom RP, Nick Johnson 1B
Wave Goodbye: Craig Tatum RP (Hou), Vladimir Guerrero (Japan), Cesar Izturis SS (Mil), Luke Scott DH (TB), Jo-Jo Reyes SP (Pit), Jeremy Guthrie SP (Col)
Biggest Questions:
1. What is the organizational plan? The team believes by abstaining from big name free agents and allocating that money to player development through the draft and via international signees they'll be able to build a better foundation that will allow for prolonged success.  The only problem with this method is it takes a long time to see results.
2. Is Brian Matusz's career as an effective big leaguer over? That's a little harsh but there are reasons to be concerned. Whispers about work ethic may not be unfounded but the bigger question is why did his velocity and command slip so much last season? If he posts another year like 2011 he'll go from elite prospect to bust in less than two years.
3. What's the latest on Brian Roberts' health?  In May of last season Roberts hit his head sliding into first base and suffered a severe concussion.  He missed the rest of the season and has not participated in live games in spring training.  The team is likely optimistic he'll play soon since they put him on the 15 day DL and not the 60 day DL.
Expectations: It's going to be another losing season thanks to being in a stacked division.  If the young pitchers can take a step forward there will be reason for optimism, otherwise the team will be going backwards - not a good sign when you're already in last place.
Matt Wieters is another example of how it often takes a catcher
 longer than the average hitter to develop his offensive skills.
Probable Opening day lineup:
1. Reimold LF
2. Johnson DH
3. Markakis RF
4. Jones CF
5. Wieters C
6. Hardy SS
7. Reynolds 3B
8. Davis 1B
9. Andino 2B
Probable Rotation/Closer
1. Arrieta
2. Hammel
3. Chen
4. Hunter
5. Matusz
CL: Johnson

Boston Red Sox
2011 Record: 90-72
2012 Estimated Team Salary: $168.7 million
Highest Paid Player: Adrian Gonzalez - $21 million
Best Player: Adrian Gonzalez is the best player on this team and - dare I say it - will be the best player in the American League this season.
Best Pitcher: Jon Lester had his worst season since 2007 last year but still put up a 15-9 record with a 122 ERA+.
Say Hello To: Andrew Bailey CL, Ryan Sweeney OF, Kelly Shoppach C, Mark Melancon RP, Nick Punto INF, John Maine SP, Clayton Mortensen RP, Cody Ross OF, Aaron Cook SP, Vicente Padilla SP
Wave Goodbye: 
Dan Wheeler RP (Cle), Erik Bedard SP (Pit), JD Drew (FA), Conor Jackson OF (Tex), Trever Miller RP (ChC), Jason Varitek C (retired), Jonathan Papelbon CL (Phi), Tim Wakefield P (retired), Jed Lowrie SS (Hou), Josh Reddick OF (Oak), Marco Scutaro SS (Col)
Biggest Questions:
1. Can this team win without Theo Epstein?  Since Theo doesn't play, yeah they can.  The bigger question is how will his departure change the shape of the roster?  New GM Ben Cherington has already traded a starting infielder for a relief pitcher.  Not that that's a bad trade but it's not something Theo would've done.
2. Will Boston's lack of rotation depth haunt them? It very well may. John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka are on the DL due to Tommy John surgery. Daisuke may be back in August but not earlier. Plus Tim Wakefield retired.  In order to compensate the team is trying reliever Daniel Bard in the rotation which might work but if it doesn't where do they turn?
3. Is Carl Crawford a bust?  He was pretty terrible last year though that could be due to pressing.  I thought he'd be a great rebound candidate this season but now it seems he'll be out of action until May due to an injured wrist.  Not a good start for the $100 million man.
Expectations: Boston has the talent to get back to the playoffs and then some.  That's an awful lot of pressure on a pitching staff missing two of it's top five starters this season.  Unless things break just right it's possible this team will be home once again come October.
With their lack of rotational depth, the  Red Sox can't afford for
Josh Beckett to get off to another slow start this season.
Probable Opening day lineup:
1. Ellsbury CF
2. Pedroia 2B
3. Gonzalez 1B
4. Youkilis 3B
5. Ortiz DH
6. Ross LF
7. Sweeney RF
8. Saltalamacchia C
9. Aviles SS
Probable Rotation/Closer
1. Lester
2. Beckett
3. Buchholz
4. Bard
5. Aceves
CL: Bailey

New York Yankees
2011 Record: 97-65
2012 Estimated Team Salary: $205.8 million
Highest Paid Player: Alex Rodriguez - $29 million
Best Player: Not ARod, not Jeter, nor Tex.  It's Robinson Cano who is the best offensive and one of the best defensive second basemen in baseball right now.
Best Pitcher: CC Sabathia is a monster on the mound and in real life.
Say Hello To: Andy Pettitte SP, Michael Pineda SP, Raul Ibanez OF, Hiroki Kuroda SP, DeWayne Wise OF
Wave Goodbye: Jesus Montero DH (Sea), Jorge Posada C (retired), Bartolo Colon SP (Oak)
Biggest Questions:
1. Are ARod and Jeter still good enough to carry this team to October glory? No, but they don't have to be. ARod and especially Jeter have been passed by Cano and Granderson as the stars on this team.  As long as these two continue to stay healthy they'll make a positive impact.
2. How much longer until Sabathia's arm falls off?  CC's pitched 230 or more regular season innings four straight seasons and while he's shown signs of tiring in the postseason there's no reason to believe he won't continue to be one of the top starters in baseball yet again in 2012.  He's got a shot at 300 wins down the line.
3. What does this team need to get over the hump in October?  Really, I don't know.  There's enough offense but if I had to nitpick I would say a better #2 starter.  Maybe that person will be Pineda or maybe Andy Pettitte's return will do the trick.
Expectations: This is the most talented team in baseball so reaching the postseason is always the goal barring something catastrophic happening.
This is likely the last season for the greatest reliever of all time.
Probable Opening day lineup:
1. Jeter SS
2. Granderson CF
3. Rodriguez 3B
4. Teixeira 1B
5. Cano 2B
6. Ibanez DH
7. Swisher RF
8. Martin C
9. Gardner LF
Probable Rotation/Closer
1. Sabathia
2. Kuroda
3. Nova
4. Pineda
5. Hughes
CL: Rivera

Tampa Rays
2011 Record: 91-71
2012 Estimated Team Salary: $68.4 million
Highest Paid Player: James Shields - $7 million
Best Player: Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist are neck and neck here.  Both posted a WAR over 6.1 according to Fangraphs.  I'd say Zobrist gets the edge due to his excellent defense at two positions (2B & RF).
Best Pitcher: James Shields led the AL in complete games, Matt Moore may be the #1 prospect in baseball, but it's David Price.
Say Hello To: Carlos Pena 1B, Jose Molina C, Luke Scott LF, Fernando Rodney RP, Jeff Keppinger INF
Wave goodbye: Johnny Damon DH (FA), Kelly Shoppach C (Bos), Juan Cruz RP (Pit), Casey Kotchman 1B (Cle), John Jaso C (Sea), Andy Sonnanstine P (ChC)
Biggest Questions:
1. How good is Matt Moore? Let's see...he struck out 11 in 5 innings in his first major league start (@ Boston) and he shut out Texas for 7 innings in Game 1 of the ALDS.  I'd say he's the early favorite for Rookie of the Year and will pick up some Cy Young votes.
2. How long can Tampa remain competitive with this payroll?  As long as the Rays are able to maintain good starting pitching depth they'll be ahead of the game.  James Shields is locked up until 2015, Matt Moore just signed an 8-year deal, while Jeremy Hellickson and Jeff Niemann will be under team control for at least three more years.  The one wild card here is David Price. The longer he stays the longer Tampa will have a killer rotation.
3. Is there too much pressure being placed on the rotation?  There is a lot of pressure, that's for sure.  The bullpen is headed by Kyle Farnsworth and Fernando Rodney, two guys who are not considered elite relievers. The offense hopes to get a boost with the addition of Carlos Pena and from a full season of Desmond Jennings.  The defense and starting pitching will be superb but they'll need to be.
Expectations: When you have an elite rotation you have a chance.  The Rays will need to stay healthy in order to score runs and that might be too much to ask of this team's stars.  A third place finish seems likely but then again we said that last year.
The addition of Matt Moore to the Rays' rotation
makes them a team no one wants to face. 
Probable Opening day lineup:
1. Jennings CF
2. Scott DH
3. Longoria 3B
4. Zobrist RF
5. Pena 1B
6. Joyce LF
7. Rodriguez 2B
8. Molina C
9. Brignac SS
Probable Rotation/Closer
1. Price
2. Shields
3. Moore
4. Hellickson
5. Niemann
CL: Farnsworth

Toronto Blue Jays
2011 Record: 81-81
2012 Estimated Team Salary: $84.1 million
Highest Paid Player: Jose Bautista - $14 million
Best Player: Since retooling his swing, Jose Bautista has revitalized his career hitting 97 home runs in the past two seasons to go along with 232 walks.  That's pretty good.
Best Pitcher: Ricky Romero's now had two straight seasons of 200 IP with 170 or more strikeouts.  If he can reduce the number of big flies he allows his ERA will continue to improve.
Say Hello To: Luis Valbuena 2B, Jeff Mathis C, Sergio Santos CL, Ben Francisco OF, Brian Bocock OF, Aaron Laffey P, Stephen Marek RP, Jason Frasor RP, Darren Oliver RP, Omar Vizquel INF, Francisco Cordero CL
Wave goodbye: DeWayne Wise OF (NYY), Shawn Camp RP (ChC), Frank Francisco CL (NYM), Jon Rauch RP (NYM), Jose Molina C (TB), Brad Mills RP (LAA), 
Biggest Questions:
1. Which direction is this franchise heading? Most definitely up. Whether or not they reach the playoffs with this core is another question but there's plenty of young talent and GM Alex Anthopoulos is so good at trades I'm surprised teams answer when he calls. 
2. Can Colby Rasmus be an above average major leaguer?  He already is one. He plays good defense (though he needs to stop diving) and hits for some power but still hasn't put it all together. This caused the Cardinals to move him in a deadline deal last year.  The Blue Jays are giddy they have him but if he puts up another pedestrian .298 OBP this trade won't be much of a steal.
3. So...which Adam Lind is the real one? Sadly, it appears the one from last season is probably closer to what we should be expecting going forward.  There's nothing wrong with 25 HR and a .450 slugging unless of course you're expecting 35 HR and a .550 slugging.
Expectations: Toronto has made incremental improvements over the last few seasons.  The middle of the diamond is comprised of young players each of who has some pop.  Top prospect Brett Lawrie is ready for the show and the team still has Jose Bautista.  The Blue Jays aim to grab a Wild Card spot which should make for a very fun year in the AL East.
The Jays believe Lawrie is their best young hitter since
Carlos Delgado.  They also hope he'll stay in Canada.
Probable Opening day lineup:
1. Escobar SS
2. Johnson 2B
3. Bautista RF
4. Encarnacion 1B
5. Thames LF
6. Lawrie 3B
7. Lind DH
8. Rasmus CF
9. Arencibia C
Probable Rotation/Closer
1. Romero
2. Morrow
3. Cecil
4. McGowan
5. Drabek
CL: Santos
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