Wednesday, February 15, 2012

AL East Preview

1st Place-New York Yankees
2011 Record: 97-65
2011 Pythagorean: 101-61
2012 Projected:99-63
An aggressive Brian Cashman pulled the trigger on two major deals this past offseason, swapping Jesus Montero for Michael Pineda and adding Hiroki Kuroda to bolster the middle of the rotation.  Pineda, an intimidating power pitcher who teamed up with Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez in Seattle last year, will slide in behind Cy Young winner C.C. Sabathia as New York's number two starter this season.  The Yankees have always had plenty of offense throughout the past eleven seasons (they led the AL in long balls and walks last season and will bring the lumber next season) but a lack of starting pitching depth has limited them to just one World Series title in that span.  While these moves upgrade the rotation substantially, neither pitcher is a sure thing. Pineda, just a 23 year-old sophomore, struggled in the second half and may have trouble adjusting to a stronger division and a hitter's park.  On the other hand, Kuroda is 37 and has gotten fat pitching in Dodger Stadium against weaker NL West opponents (the punchless Padres come to mind). Considering Randy Johnson and Javier Vazquez, far and away superior pitchers, struggled in New York it seems likely that Kuroda will regress as well.  His ERA, just a hair above three in 2011, should wind up closer to four in 2012.  The rotation is overcrowded at the moment, leading Cash to shop free-agent bust A.J. Burnett.  Pittsburgh has shown interest, but the Steinbrenners would have to eat a large chunk of that contract for the cash strapped Pirates to afford him.  I won't be surprised if the Yanks win more than 100 games in 2012, but the AL Beast makes it a challenge.  Number 42--the timeless Mariano Rivera--is 42 this season and I think age will finally catch up with him.  He'll still be a good closer, but not the elite one that's kept his ERA below 2.86 in all but two of his seventeen seasons.

2nd Place-Boston Red Sox
2011 Record: 90-72
2011 Pythagorean: 94-68
2012 Projected: 93-69
New manager Bobby Valentine inherits a team that was served a big slice of humble pie in 2011 when the preseason World Series favorites missed out on the playoffs for the second straight season despite adding Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford.  Compared to his low key, laid back predecessor, Valentine is a fiery manager that's expected to give this complacent squad a kick in the butt.  His style matches well with Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis, the team's emotional leaders.  Boston's also sporting a new look bullpen; Jonathan Papelbon went to the City of Brotherly Love and Daniel Bard is moving to the rotation, so free agent acquisitions Mark Melancon and Andrew Bailey will replace the hard-throwing tandem.  The Junior Circuit's most prolific offense should be just as devastating in 2012 with Pedroia, Youk, Gonzo, and Jacoby Ellsbury leading the attack.  I predicted a huge, Curtis Granderson-esque rebound for Crawford this year, but his recent wrist surgery may sideline him ath the beginning of the season will likely hamper his swing/inhibit his power.  We all remember how Nomar Garciaparra was never the same after hurting his wrist in 2001.  The departures of J.D. Drew (via free agency) and Marco Scutaro (shipped to Colorado in a head-scratching salary dump) leave gaping holes in right field and at shortstop (but what else is new?), and the team could still use another starting pitcher in case Clay Buchholz doesn't return to form or Bard struggles to make the adjustment.  Roy Oswalt would fit the bill nicely, and could be a huge bargain coming off a disappointing 2011 campaign with the Phillies.

3rd Place-Tampa Bay Rays
2011 Record: 91-71
2011 Pythagorean: 91-71
2012 Projected: 92-70
Top to bottom, Tampa Bay boasts the deepest starting rotation in the bigs.  All five starters won at least eleven games last year, and the highly touted Matt Moore figures to improve a staff that already includes James Shields, David Price, and AL Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson (wildly overrated and due for a pretty big fall).  Compared to the potent lineups in the division, Tampa is limited offensively.  Free agent addition Carlos Pena returns after a sabbatical with the Cubs, and the Rays hope he can provide something close to the 36 home runs, 102 RBI and .884 OPS he averaged during his four seasons with the team from 2007 through 2010.  I also think this is the year Evan Longoria finally puts it all together with an MVP caliber season, and the multitalented Desmond Jennings should provide a spark hitting leadoff for an entire season.  The defense will be superlative, as always, but I'm hoping the inevitable regression from the overachieving duo of "Big Game James" and "Hell-Boy" is enough to keep Joe Maddon's boys out of the postseason.  But these guys are this decade's version of Moneyball, a team with no money that makes the most of its limited resources to win lots of baseball games, and you can bet they'll do it again.

4th Place-Toronto Blue Jays
2011 Record: 81-81
2011 Pythagorean: 79-83
2012 Projected: 85-77
The Blue Jays have baseball's best hitter in Jose Bautista and a future Ryan Braun in Brett Lawrie, who's only 22 but posted a .953 OPS in the first 43 games of his career last season.  In the wake of a terrible 2011, I expect Colby Rasmus to settle into his new digs (especially if John Farrell hits him out of the two hole in front of Joey Bats) and return to his 2010 form that produced 23 home runs, an .859 OPS and a dozen steals as a 23 year-old in St. Louis.  Throw in Adam Lind and J.P. Arencibia, legitimate power threats (in spite of on-base percentages that would make Billy Beane cringe), along with the vastly underrated Yunel Escobar and you have a deep, talented lineup that can take advantage of the home run-friendly Rogers Centre.  Their starting pitching leaves something to be desired, but Ricky Romero has matured into a top pitcher and Brandon Morrow has that potential.  Kyle Drabek (1.81 WHIP) was a disaster last year, and Toronto needs the 24 year-old to step up and solidify the middle of the rotation.  The bullpen is much improved with Sergio Santos, Francisco Cordero, and Jason Frasor (back after a brief stint with the White Sox).  Expect Toronto to finish above .500, but they don't have enough arms to make a serious run at the Wild Card just yet.

5th Place-Baltimore Orioles
2011 Record: 69-93
2011 Pythagorean: 67-95
2012 Projected: 68-94
Only one starting pitcher, Jake Arrieta, finished above .500 for the O's last year and nobody in the rotation posted an ERA lower than workhorse Jeremy Guthrie's 4.33 mark.  Brian Matusz was a major disappointment after his hot finish in 2010 made him a popular breakout candidate, and Zach Britton couldn't sustain his early success.  The bullpen is equally terrible, but GM Dan Duquette didn't bring in reinforcements this winter.  In fact, Duquette more or less stood pat in the offseason, failing to improve his beleaguered organization and setting Baltimore up to be a doormat for the powerhouses in their division once again.  On the bright side, the offense is built around a solid nucleus of Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, Mark Reynolds and J.J. Hardy, all of whom are in their prime years.  Overall this team is quite young, so some degree of devlopment and and improvement is to be expected.  Best case scenario, they win around 75 games, but the competition of their divisional rivals makes that possibility unlikely.  Pencil them in for another last place finish and hope some of their players make great strides this year.  Does Matusz develop into a reliable starter?  Is Wieters going to transform into Joe Mauer?  Can Jones threaten 30/30?  The answers are probably no, but it never hurts to hope.

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