The smell of freshly cut grass. The thermometer registering above 50. Birds chirping to signal the dawn of each new day. Yes, if you live in the southern states, some of you might actually be enjoying these signs of Spring. As for me, it’s perpetual rain and moderately cool temperatures, which means that Spring is just around the corner in DC. And those are the two best weeks of the year by far.
It also means it’s baseball time. Yes, our long national nightmare – meaning the seven weeks between the Super Bowl and opening day for Major League Baseball – is almost over. We can stop having to pretend to care about basketball and hockey and get back to some real sports.
So with baseball mercifully just around the corner, it’s time to look ahead to the upcoming season. And I will begin with the best division in baseball, the American League East, or as it is otherwise know, “Four awesome teams and the Baltimore Orioles.”
1. Boston Red Sox. Nothing fortifies a prognosticator’s bona fides quite like making the same pick as everyone else. But try as I might to find fatal flaws in this team, I cannot. When the biggest concern a team has is its fifth starter and long relief corps, it’s in pretty good shape.
It’s worth remembering that the Red Sox won 89 games a year ago in a season where a good chunk of their roster resided for extended periods of time on the Disabled List. Not only are the Sox healthy to begin the year, but they have added Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford to the lineup, two additions which should more than make up for the losses of Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez. Though Gonzalez is the bigger pick-up, Crawford is an intriguing player for the Sox. This is a team that even in its heyday was known as a plodding powerhouse looking for the long ball. The sluggers are still there, but with Ellsbury, Pedroia, and Crawford at the top of the lineup, this will be a team that can move on the basepaths as well.
There are admittedly some concerns with the rotation. John Lester has solidified himself as an elite arm and likely Cy Young contender, but things are somewhat shaky after him. John Lackey disappointed in his first year in Beantown, and will need a bounceback year to allay concerns that he will be a free agent bust. Josh Beckett, like he did most years in Florida, battled injuries and it’s questionable if he’ll ever possess the arm strength that made him a staff ace. That said, when the back-end of a rotation features the likes of Dice-K, Clay Buccholz, and the ageless Tim Wakefield, it will probably be all right.
The Red Sox also bolstered their bullpen by picking up former White Sox closer Bobby Jenks (already looking forward to his first appearance against his old club) as well as Dan Wheeler. With Papelon and Bard closing games, the Sox should close in on 100 wins. Haters of the Evil Empire, New England edition won’t like to hear this, but not only are the Sox the best team in the East, they’re by far the best team in all of baseball.
2. Toronto Blue Jays. Time go a little but further out on that limb. The Jays have been progressing steadily through the past few seasons. Once occupying ground as just another punching bag for the Yankees and Red Sox, they moved up the ranks to general nuisance. Now it’s time for them to make a splash.
Admittedly I’d be a bit higher on the Jays if their lineup were a bit more explosive. They have helped themselves by two trades in the past eight months that both qualify as absolute thefts. First, before last year’s trade deadline, they poached a somewhat under-performing but very talented Yunel Escobar from the Braves for the vastly over-performing Alex Gonzalez (who immediately rounded down into form once dealt). Then, during the off-season, they off-loaded Vernon Wells’s albatross of a contract to the Angels in exchange for Juan Rivera and Mike Napoli, who was in turn dealt to Texas for reliever Frank Francisco. These additions should give the Jays a bit more firepower. As long as Jose Bautista doesn’t turn into a complete pumpkin, then the offense should have a little more punch than it’s had in recent years.
The key for the Jays is their starting rotation. It’s a young and talented staff that needs to hold together for the Jays to live up to my prediction. The biggest question mark of all is Jesse Litsch, who has missed most of the past two seasons due to various arm ailments. Kyle Drabek was one of the big prizes of the Roy Halladay deal, and it looks like he will start the season in the starting rotation. Rookie pitchers always experience growing pains, and even one as talented as Drabek should prove to be no exception. But if Litsch and Drabek can contribute meaningful innings for the Jays, then they will boast the best rotation in the division along with the Rays.
The Jays don’t have the same margin for error as the Yanks or Sox. If players get hurt or don’t perform as expected, then they don’t have the same depth or finances to go out and find replacements. That said, I’m going with the Jays to be the mild surprise team of the year.
3. New York Yankees. You almost get a bad feeling that all of the diminished expectations surrounding the Yankees is a sign that they will wind up winning it all this season. But after the double blow of whiffing on Cliff Lee followed by Andy Pettitte’s retirement, the Yankees are going to be even more reliant on a still formidable but aging lineup.
And to be sure the Yankees will hit. Their infield is still one of the most impressive ever assembled. Moving Jorge Posada to DH, meanwhile, both improves their defense and allows Posada to contribute with his bat while getting a break from the daily grind of catching. And though his numbers seemed a bit down last year, Curtis Granderson was as productive as he’d been for the Tigers in 2008 and 2009 – it’s just that an other-wordley 2007 season exaggerated his value. But even with an offense that presumably will not struggle to score runs, there are a couple of issues. Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter are not getting any younger. Jeter in particular took a big step back in production last year, and despite being (preposterously) voted the number one athlete in New York history, has probably seen his best days behind him. Also, the Yankees lack depth beyond their starting lineup, which is just amazing considering their astronomical payroll. Mets fans rightfully criticized Omar Minaya for his inability to add depth to the roster, but Brian Cashman is basically betting that elder statesmen like A-Rod, Jeter, and Posada stay healthy all year. That could be a proposition that loses big.
The real issue with the Yankees is their starting rotation. They have one of the best pitchers in the game at the top of their rotation in CC Sabathia, but after that it gets real spotty. Phil Hughes made the All-Star team last year, but overall had only a slightly above average season, producing only 2.4 WAR (an everage player should be at around 2.0). No one knows from start to start which A.J. Burnett will show up. And after that it gets even shakier, as veteran retreads like Sergio Mitre and Freddy Garcia are battling for rotation spots along with unheralded youngster Ivan Nova. It has been suggested that the Yankees can always go out and pick up a starter, but who will be available? Perhaps the Mariners will conduct a mid-season firesale and sell off King Felix, but that is unlikely. Adding Rafael Soriano and Pedro Feliciano to the bullpen will surely give the Yanks a boost there, but now Joba Chamberlain, coming off a disappointing season as it is, is aching. Yankee fans will be watching a lot of 8-7 games, but that’s been the norm for a while. And if many of their stars truly act their age, then they’ll be on the losing end more often than not.
4. Tampa Bay Rays. Despite losing a bevy of important players, including Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Rafael Soriano and Matt Garza, the Rays still figure to be competitive. Yeah, I am picking them fourth, but they still should keep their heads above .500 and at least be in the Wild Card hunt.
The Rays’ salvation will be their rotation, which features ace David Price and a slew of young arms that should keep the Rays in most games. The key to the rotation will be James Shields. He suffered through a mediocre 2010 campaign, though he was not helped by a ridiculous .341 BABIP (Batting average on balls in play – league average is around .290). His peripherals suggest he still has the stuff that makes him an All-Star caliber pitcher, and if he can experience a bit more luck this season that will give the Rays a tremendous boost.
But will the Rays hit? Losing Crawford and Pena are big blows, and their lineup is not particularly imposing outside of Evan Longoria. The Rays are going to be counting on the soon to be 39 year old Manny Ramirez to provide protection for Longoria in the cleanup spot. And they’ve added another aging former superstar, Johnny Damon, to replace Crawford. He is unlikely to provide nearly as much value as the guy he’s replacing, but the Rays hope he at least has enough fuel in the tank to keep them afloat.
Ben Zobrist is as important to the lineup as James Shields is for the rotation. Zobrist put up a ridiculous 8.4 WAR season in 2009, and his production fell off by more than half last year. His 2009 season was probably a bit of a fluke, but if he can at least split the difference between his last two seasons he can give the Rays some meaningful production by a player other than their star third basemen. Meanwhile the world continues to wait for B.J. Upton to have that breakout season that establishes him as a premier stud superstar. The world will have to keep waiting, but at least he should provide better than average value in center.
Other than that, the Rays will hope to exploit matchups and utilize their depth in order to squeeze out every victory they can from this club. It probably won’t be enough in the end, but don’t count them out just yet.
5. Baltimore Orioles. It’s gotta be tough to be an O’s fan. Even when things are moving in the right direction and there is finally an air of optimism about the organization, you realize in the end that you’re looking at another last place finish.
And there is a lot to be optimistic about in Baltimore. The hiring of Buck Showalter seemed to have breathed some life into this moribund franchise. No doubt Buck will have this team playing hard and will keep them competitive. They also went out and added some veteran bats to a punchless lineup in the persons of Mark Reynolds, Vladimir Guerrero, Derek Lee, and JJ Hardy. At the very least, Lee and Guerrero will be good enough to give the O’s some trade bait come July. There are also some fantastic young players that fans are hoping will be the faces of the franchise for years to come. Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and Nick Markakis have shown flashes of stardom, and there are expectations for better things to come for all of them. And of course they do have the privilege of playing in what is arguably the most beautiful ballpark in all of baseball. So there’s that.
On the other hand, there are four obstacles that will prevent the O’s from making a major move: the Red Sox, Jays, Yankees and Rays. What”s worse, one of those teams (the Yanks) has unlimited financial resources, two others have deep systems and great organizational leadership (Rays and Jays), while the fourth team has vast financial resources, a loaded system, and fantastic organizational leadership (the Sox). So even as the Orioles continue to make strives, they are going to have to compete with four of the best organizations in all of baseball, all of whom share space in the same division. (Meanwhile the AL West might struggle to produce a team that wins more than 85 games. Just saying.)
Still, the Orioles will give their fans something to cheer about. On top of a decent lineup they might finally have a rotation that keeps the other team from posting football scores. No there is no bona fide ace or even potential star in the bunch, but they do have a steady stream of mid-level starters that will finally keep the bullpen from wearing out by June.
All in all the Orioles should make a run at finishing around .500, which will be just good enough for a last place finish 20 games off the lead.
Maybe it’s time to re-think divisional play.