Monday, April 1, 2013

With Beasts of AL East Gone, Division Up For Grabs

There seems to be no grey area when the so-called experts talk about the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. One or both teams will compete for the AL East crown or will crash roughly into the basement. One thing is for sure, the divisional race will be a five team free-for-all.

Yankees - The two-time defending AL East champs are in a bind, but no one is feeling sorry for them. The team has been beset by injuries, gone on a payroll slashing spree, and has aged seemingly overnight. They won 95 games last year, but some of the keys to that team are either gone (Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Rafael Soriano) or on the disabled list (Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira).

What remains is a pretty good starting rotation of CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes, and either Ivan Nova or David Phelps. Mariano Rivera is back after missing almost all of 2012 with a torn ACL and is joined by David Robertson, Boone Logan, Joba Chamberlain, and Shawn Kelley to form a strong pen.

But the Yankees have several question marks about their offense and defense.  The Yankees relied heavily on the long ball last year to win games, but much of the power is now gone. Joe Girardi will instead depend on Brett Gardner to set the table as the lead off man. Gardner played only 16 games last year due to a surgically repaired elbow, causing the team to not be able to play much small ball.  His game is especially critical with Jeter out indefinitely as he continues to repair the ankle he broke in last year's post-season. An average between .270 and .280, a decent amount of walks, and 40+ steals are a must by Gardner.

Robinson Cano is now the go to guy in the lineup, the team's best hitter. The Gold Glove second baseman destroyed international pitching in the World Baseball Classic (1.296 OPS) and was commended for his leadership by Yankees bench coach and manager of the Dominican Republic entry, Tony Pena.

Cano slugged 33 home runs, knocked in 94 runs and had a career best .929 OPS in 2012.  The Yankees need him to repeat those type of numbers as well as improve his hitting with runners in scoring position (.268) and RISP with two outs (.207). They'll also need to find someone to bat behind Cano's third spot to give him some protection in the order.

Kevin Youkilis in a Yankees uniform? No way...wayyyyy. Timing is everything in life; back in 2003 Yankees third baseman Aaron Boone sent the Bronx Bombers to the World Series with a walk off solo home run in Game 7 of the ALCS. That winter Boone tore up his knee playing basketball prompting the Yankees to deal for Alex Rodriguez after Texas' deal with the Red Sox fell through.

This past off-season Rodriguez had hip surgery that opened a spot in the Yankees lineup. Youkilis banished from Boston at last season's trade deadline, signed a one year deal with the Yankees to fill the void. As it turns out Youkilis will non-simultaneously fill two voids. With Mark Teixeira sidelined with an injured tendon in his right wrist, Youkilis might see considerable playing time at first base when the opposing pitchers starts a left-hander.

Speaking of Teixeira, he and Swisher are both switch-hitters which made things tougher on opposing managers. But with Teixeira sidelined and Swisher now in Cleveland, the Yankees do not have a switch-hitter in their lineup. The Yankees may very well have three straight left-handers at the top of their lineup - Gardner, Ichiro Suzuki, and Cano - even when a left-hander is starting for the opposition.

The Yankees will need a healthy Teixeira, who is overly optimistic about a May 1 return, to come back healthy and with some strength in his wrist. He still faces the possibility of season ending surgery on the partially torn sheath.

The return of Curtis Granderson will be another huge step forward for the Yankees. Granderson had the bone in his right forearm broken in this year's first Spring Training game. (Thanks a lot J.A. Happ.) Granderson hit 43 home runs last year, but his overall at-bats were nowhere nearly as proficient as they were in 2011 when he hit 41 home runs and led the league in RBI (119) and runs scored (136). His OPS dipped over 100 points last season, he stole just 10 bases, and he struck out a ridiculous 195 times.

Granderson's 169 strikeouts in 2011 were too high as well, but it was tolerable due to everything else he brought to the table. The Yankees need Granderson to have a season more like the one he had with the Detroit Tigers in 2007 when he had 20+ doubles, triples, home runs, stolen bases, hit .302 and slugged .552.

With those two power sources out, Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner, Brennan Boesch, and Ben Francisco are going to need to pick up the slack. (My guestimate is that Hafner will be DL'ed or released by mid-Summer.)

Lastly, the Yankees need for their captain to get healthy sooner rather than later, but they may have no choice. Ankles don't heal quickly and Jeter's is no exception to the rule. He had a phenomenal season with the bat in 2012 after a resurgence in the second half of 2011. His return to the lineup would also allow Girardi to mix up the right- and left-handed hitters. Jeter is also the face, heart, soul, and emotion of the ball club, and the Yankees could use a big dose of all of those.

Red Sox- The downfall of the Red Sox in 2012 actually began in 2011 when, on the verge of a playoff appearance, they collapsed down the stretch and went home with no post-season plans. There was the chicken eating/beer drinking controversy among the starting rotation and the thought that manager Terry Francona had lost control of the team.

Francona was fired, and over the objection of GM Ben Cherington, the organization hired Bobby Valentine. The move turned out to be a disaster. Whereas Francona was a players' manager, Valentine never connected with the squad and the team finished in last place with just 69 wins.

Cherington and company started the team makeover at the trade deadline last year when he dealt injured/under achieving Carl Crawford, whiny/sapped of power Adrian Gonzalez, and Non-leader leader and pain in the rump Josh Beckett to the LA Dodgers. In the off-season they brought in character guys Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli, and traded for closer Joel Hanrahan to strengthen their bullpen. They also signed free agent Ryan Dempster to try to solidify the starting rotation.

With Beckett gone, Jon Lester is now the ace, but he must revert to his pre-2012 performance. New manager/former Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell needs Clay Buchholz and John Lackey to stay healthy and perform at a high level.

The Red Sox are counting on David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury staying healthy to help Dustin Pedroia in the lineup and on youngsters Jackie Bradley Jr. and shortstop Jose Iglesias to perform like veterans. In Iglesias' case, at least until Stephen Drew returns from a concussion. Ortiz is already on the 15-day DL with troublesome heels- not a good omen for Boston.

Rays - Some teams like to flaunt their prospects, talk about how great they are, especially their pitchers. Neither the Tampa Bay Rays or the Oakland A's need to do that. They just continue to churn out guys that know how to pitch and are successful. The unfortunate side for both squads is they have to deal them away when the big contracts come into play.

The Rays have dealt Matt Garza and James Shields as they were on the brink of a big payday. But Joe Maddon can still turn to David Price (20-5, 2.56, 200+ innings for the fourth straight year), last year's AL Cy Young Award winner. He'll be followed by stars in the making Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore, promising youngster Alex Cobb, and veteran Roberto Hernandez (the former Fausto Carmona, beat out Jeff Niemann for the 5th spot).

Fernando Rodney was one of the most inconsistent relievers in all of baseball from 2002-2011. Then last year he was suddenly unhittable and saved 48 games in 50 attempts. He's joined by a host of power arms that gives the Rays an outstanding bullpen.

Offense has been an issue with the Rays for years, especially when their best hitter, Evan Longoria, is out of the lineup. Longoria missed 29 games in 2011, and a much more damaging 88 last year. Executive Vice-President of Baseball Operations/VP Andrew Friedman brought in second baseman Kelly Johnson and shortstop Yunel Escobar to help boost a lineup that finished 18th out of 30 teams last year in runs scored.

The Rays also need Matt Joyce and Desmond Jennings to continue to grow as offensive forces and Wil Myers (acquired for Shields and Wade Davis) waiting in the wings, but Longoria's health remains the key to success.

Orioles - Baltimore took everyone but themselves by surprise last year when they won 93 games and earned a wild card spot. They then knocked off the two time defending AL pennant champion Texas Rangers in the one game wild card playoff before losing in five games to the Yankees in the division series.

Buck Showalter's squad got big performances from rookies Miguel Gonzalez and Wei-Yin Chen, and a career-best year from veteran Jason Hammel. Closer Jim Johnson came into his own with a 51 save season to lead a solid bullpen.

Offensively, Chris Davis had a bust out year, Adam Jones shone like the star scouts always thought he would be, and catcher Matt Wieters produced his second consecutive solid season with the bat. Third baseman Manny Machado, a natural shortstop, played in 51 regular season games and played like 10-year veteran and not a 19-year old rookie. Imagine what they might do if second baseman Brian Roberts could ever stay healthy.

As a team, the Orioles got things done when they needed to. They were a phenomenal 29-9 in one run games, the best winning percentage (.763) in the modern era. The team also won 16 straight extra inning contests and did it all by using 12 different starting pitchers.

The O's are going to find it difficult to repeat the level of last year's play unless they can get a steady performance from their starting rotation and not have their offense fade away as it did in the playoffs.

Blue Jays - Toronto is the last team written about here, but they won't be near the bottom of the AL East standings. Though I am not going to go crazy on the Blue Jays bandwagon as many people have, the team's off-season moves have made them a formidable opponent.

This past November, the Miami Marlins, in one of their notorious salary dumping move, dealt veteran pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, shortstop Jose Reyes, and utility man Emil Bonifacio  to the Jays for four young Major Leaguers and three minor leaguers.

It cost them highly touted prospect Travis d'Arnaud, but Toronto then added NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey through a trade with the Mets. If Johnson stays healthy, Brandon Morrow gets more consistent, and Ricky Romero can revert to pre-2012 form, the Blue Jays starting staff is one to be reckoned with.

The bullpen is of major concern though with closer Casey Janssen  and former closer Sergio Santos both returning from shoulder surgery. The Blue Jays hope both are healthy in which case Santos will have ample opportunity to win back the job the Jays acquired him for after the 2011 season.

The two biggest question marks on offense are, is Jose Bautista healthy and can Edwin Encarnacion come anywhere near repeating his 2012 season? After winning two straight AL home run titles, Bautista went down with the injury that is now plaguing the Yankees' Mark Teixeira. After missing a month of the 2012 season, Bautista returned for two games in August, but was immediately shut down and required surgery to stabilize the tendon in his left wrist. He appears ready to go this year after he hit six home runs in Spring Training  and compiled a 1.000+ OPS.

Encarnacion has always been a player that has the burden of potential. Last year he realized it when he had career years in almost every offensive category, including 41 HR, 110 RBI, and a .941 OPS. Everyone doubted that Bautista could repeat his 2010 season when he slugged 54 home runs, but he followed that up with a 43 home run performance. Can Encarnacion follow suit?

The answer here is somewhat so; I would expect the 30-year old to be closer to 30 home runs and his RBI potential will depend on the risks the team took when they acquired Colby Rasmus last season and signed free agent/busted PED user Melky Cabrera.

Expect the Blue Jays to score plenty of runs either way, home and away. One final note- very odd choice to bring John Gibbons back as manager after being the skipper from 2004-2008.


So there you have the team by team preview of the AL East. So who wins the division and where do the Yankees fit?

1. Tampa Bay takes the AL East due to their combination of starting pitching and bullpen. They should also be improved offensively.

2. Toronto; the Blue Jays will have plenty of offense and solid starting pitching. The bullpen should be the only issue (outside of unpredictable injuries) that could sink their season. Otherwise they'll compete for one of the two wild card spots.

3. Yankees; the starting rotation and bullpen will get the job done, but the team is short on offensive firepower and looking to catch lightning in a bottle with guys like Vernon Wells and Brennan Boesch. If Granderson, Teixeira, and Jeter  (and what of Alex Rodriguez?) can return and contribute the team could slide up to second place and a wild card slot. But the feeling here is they will miss the playoffs for just the second time since the 1993 season.

4. Orioles; there would be plenty of outrage in Baltimore at this prediction. The Orioles starting rotation doesn't intimidate anyone and too many things would have to go right to win 90+ games again, especially with Toronto's improvement. Baltimore will give everyone a hard time though.

5. Red Sox; there should be no shock here. The Sox were in last place last year and didn't improve enough to get back to .500. Even before he was hurt, Lackey was struggling. Victorino isn't the player he once was and Napoli is overrated offensively.

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