By Edju Martin
Ladies, gentlemen, and Brian Batty, pull up a chair and sit down, as today we’re going to dive into a preview of arguably the most dominant baseball division of the Wild Card Era, the American League East. We’ll go in order from my predictions of first to worst.
1st place – Tampa Bay Rays
“But wait Edju, aren’t you an unabashed Boston homer?” Unabashed Boston fan yes, homer no. You got the feeling in last year’s postseason that the Rays were once again up-and-coming, and were a year away from really being special. Some folks did think that the Rays would outpitch the Red Sox, but the relentless Sox lineup ground down the Rays excellent starters and forced more work from the young-but-big-armed Tampa Bay bullpen than skipper Joe Maddon would have liked.
However, that was last year, and this year looks to be one of great promise at the western end of Interstate 4. David Price anchors a young rotation that averages a shade over 25 years of age, and will be missing the services of Jeremy Hellickson until midseason. If these arms can continue to evolve and improve, and there’s no reason to believe they can’t under Maddon, this team will be very hard to beat and will mostly be immune to long losing streaks that can derail a contender.
The bullpen isn’t as polished as the rotation, and there’s some retreads out there (Heath Bell & Joel Peralta, this means you), but they have an experienced closer in the returning Grant Balfour, and a young power arm in Jake McGee if age catches up to the Aussie sooner than expected.
The lineup isn’t as strong as some of the competition in the AL East, but they’re certainly serviceable, and you can be sure that Maddon will be able to put his hitters in a position to succeed, even if the traditional statistics don’t reflect their quality.
Prediction: The Rays win the division by 5 games or so, and are the team no one wants to face in the postseason.
2nd place – Boston Red Sox
The defending World Champions (and don’t think I wont go back for seconds on this one) had a mixed offseason just on the loss of Jacoby Ellsbury alone, as Ellsbury had undeniable skills but was an injury risk and was probably given a lengthier contract from the Yankees that was warranted based on that injury history, but now they have a situation where Jackie Bradley Jr. is going to need to step up and fill those shoes. It’s probably near impossible, but he’ll have help from a veteran club that may be looking to this season as one last hurrah before many of these guys scatter to the winds.
When your catching platoon features a 37 & 36 year old, that’s worrisome, and I expect Ryan Lavarnway to see time behind the dish. Elsewhere, Will Middlebrooks needs to show he can up his game on the field as he has with the ladies, scoring the always luscious Jenny Dell. He’s hit well so far this spring, but the defense has been shaky, and the rumored re-signing of Stephen Drew could see Middlebrooks pushed to a utility role.
Continuing the young questions in the lineup, what do we make of Xander Bogaerts? Was his solid postseason a function of him not being awed by the spotlight, or the pitchers not knowing how to pitch him? I suspect that the answer lies somewhere in between, but he’s going to be a top of the order hitter sooner rather than later.
The rest of the lineup is solid, and will likely continue grinding down opposing pitchers (and their pitch counts up). David Ortiz is David Ortiz, and Dustin Pedroia should see a return of his power after offseason hand surgery.
The rotation has one ace, one guy with ace potential, and some question marks. Jon Lester is Jon Lester and showed what he could do once the bad influences (Josh Beckett, come on down) left town. Clay Buchholz, if he can put the mental aspect together with his obvious physical gifts, can be an ace. Did John Lackey put it back together last year, or was he motivated to show he wasn’t one of the bad apples from the hideous 2012 squad? I don’t think he’ll be as good as 2013, but he’ll be a solid #4 guy or so. Jake Peavy followed up a decent regular season with a horrific postseason effort, and he’s a solid shrug when it comes to foretelling his 2014 season. The key to the season, barring any in-season acquistions, could be Felix Doubront, who can be a nice middle of the rotation starter if he doesn’t walk the ballpark, which has been an issue in the past. This rotation is definitely boom or bust, and it’s hard to get a read on what we’ll see.
As for the bullpen, they were magnificent in 2013, led by Koji Uehara, who had one of the best relief seasons in the history of the game of baseball. Read that again: one of the best relief seasons in the history of the game of baseball. Will that happen again? I can’t possibly imagine. If it does, then this team is going to be very tough to outlast, but you just can’t project that to happen again. Junichi Tazawa will continue to setup, but the rest of the bullpen is pretty pedestrian.
Prediction: The Sox earn the first wildcard, advance to the ALDS, and suffer a revenge elimination at the hands of Tampa.
3rd place – New York Yankees
What a circus. P.T. Barnum is somewhere in the afterlife wondering what he could do with this clown show. That said, these guys should be better equipped to contend this year, with an improved lineup – if they stay healthy – and no ARod gumming up the works.
The rotation, however, is not championship caliber, and if the lineup suffers injuries or plays their age, this team is in trouble.
The additions of Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Brian Roberts, Brian McCann, and Kelly Johnson (Jesus, that’s five guys) and the “addition” of Mark Teixeira (15 games and 53 AB is negliible) should boost a lineup that scored the fewest runs since the 1990 Yankee edition. They need everyone firing on all cylinders and healthy, though, as they’re going to be winning a lot of 8-6 games, and that’s rarely a recipe for success long-term. Make no mistake, this offense will be better, though.
The rotation is led by CC Sabathia, whose waistline has expanded at the same rate of his ERA, and is now 33 years old carrying too much bulk. Hiroki Kuroda was acceptable last year, but is also now 39 years old and doesn’t look to sustain his production. Ivan Nova should be solid if not spectacular, and may end up being the best holdover from last year, while projected 5th starter David Phelps likely will pitch like, well, a 5th starter.
The wildcard here is obviously Masahiro Tanaka. He could be anywhere in between Hideki Irabu (well, not the part about Irabu being dead) and Yu Darvish. I suspect he’ll be closer to Darvish, and probably comparable to a healthy Daisuke Matsuzaka, which was pretty damn good. If so, they may be in contention longer than I think.
Past David Robertson, who will never ever be able to fill Mariano Rivera’s shoes, but should be pretty good in his own right, the bullpen blows. Has-beens, never-will-bes, and Bernie Lomax-quality guys will be entrusted by Joe Girardi to hold opposing offenses at bay while the lineup does their thing. If Joe Girardi doesn’t have a raging ulcer by June, his gastrointestinal doctor is the James Andrews of that field.
Prediction: Right around the same as 2013 – 85 wins and no postseason.
4th place – Baltimore Orioles
It’s 2014, and the Orioles have constructed a team that can mash homers, but treat walks and OBA in general like they’re a 300 lb girl in a bar – only to be utilized as a last resort. Combine that with shaky pitching, and it’s going to be a long year in the AL East.
The Baltimore lineup can intimidate, with players up and down the lineup that can change the game with one swing, but if no one is on base, is that really helpful? Baltimore finished last season 19th in MLB in OBA at .313, and the list of teams under them looks like a snuff film (Seattle, Houston, Miami, etc.), with little prospects on improving that in 2014. Manny Machado is going to be a top player for the future, but is coming off knee surgery, and there’s really no reason to rush him back with little prospect of contending this year.
Chris Davis can crush it, sure, and Adam Jones is a stud, but the rest of the lineup is filled with top prospects who have disappointed (Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis), retreads (JJ Hardy, Nelson Cruz), and why bothers (Jemile Weeks, Nolan Reimold). Buck Showalter will do his damnedest to get this lineup to produce, but he’s not going to be able to change water into wine.
Ubaldo Jimenez is a good top starter, although he’d fit better as a #2 somewhere, and Chris Tillman isn’t bad but is better suited to the #3 or #4 slot. The rest of the rotation, featuring Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, and Miguel Gonzalez, just simply blows. This is another team that will need to mash to keep up with the failings in the rotation, but whereas New York has the pieces to do it, Baltimore is lacking.
The bullpen isn’t bad despite the inexplicable trade of Jim Johnson (for Jemile Weeks, which is like trading a 50 cent piece for pocket lint), but it’s tough when you’re pitching from behind too much, and Tommy Hunter, should he be a serviceable closer, will have 30 of the emptiest saves you’ll see this season.
Prediction: About 75-80 wins and no hope.
5th place – Toronto Blue Jays
An old, aging, overpaid team with a pedestrian lineup and horrific starting pitching, in the AL East? Sounds like a recipe for rancid poutine, or whatever would be a good analogy for something that would trouble Canadians.
The lineup has star power with JOSE, JOSE JOSE JOSE, JOSE, JOSE Reyes, and Jose Bautista, but neither of them have shown any real interest in staying healthy in recent years, and missing a guy like Joey Bats for a good chunk of the season is never good.
Brett Lawrie may put it together, but the rest of the lineup is average (or reformed roiders – yes, that’s you Melky) and don’t inspire enough confidence to trust or even name in this preview.
Unfortunately, that means that we get to talk about the rotation now. When you’re an old knuckleballer whose knuckler isn’t particularly potent at this point, all you can do is stay loose to better avoid the liners coming back through the box. And yes, I’m obviously referring to RA Dickey, who went from Cy Young in 2012 to a collective sigh in 2013 from Toronto fans. Brandon Morrow has never been able to harness the obvious live arm he has, Mark Buehrle is starting to show his age, JA Happ might as well be IP Freeley, and what the hell is an Esmil Rogers?
The bullpen is pretty damn good, even with Casey Janssen’s health a question mark. Santos, Delabar, Cecil, Loup, and McGowan may combine with Janssen to have the best bullpen in the division, but that’s like saying your girlfriend has the thinnest mustache among her friends.