Tuesday, March 25, 2014

2014 AL East Preview

Led by 2012 AL Cy Young winner David Price, Tampa has plenty of  pitching
1st Place Tampa Bay Rays
2013 Record: 92-71
2013 Pythagorean: 87-76
2014 Projected: 93-69
The Rays have so much good starting pitching it's not even funny. The rotation projects to be David Price, Matt Moore, Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, and Jake Odorizzi, backed up by Jeremy Hellickson, Erik Bedard and prospect Alex Colome. Nobody can match that. Their new and improved bullpen is just as good, especially with Grant Balfour representing a clear upgrade at closer over Fernando Rodney. Their offense is a bit light, as usual, but full seasons from Wil Myers and David DeJesus should help and they'll hit enough so long as Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist and Desmond Jennings remain healthy and James Loney doesn't start sucking again. With so much depth top-to-bottom, Tampa Bay is well-positioned to win its first World Series this year.

2nd Place Boston Red Sox
2013 Record: 97-65
2013 Pythagorean: 100-62
2014 Projected: 91-71
Everything went right for the World Series champions last year, but they should have enough resources to overcome natural regression and the loss of several key contributors. While the Red Sox got worse in some areas, pitching wasn't one of them. On paper, Boston's pitching depth is on par with Tampa Bay's. The Red Sox rotation consists of Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Jake Peavy, and Felix Doubront, with Mass. native Chris Capuano ready to step in when needed. I like their bullpen even better this year now that Edward Mujica is on board. The lineup is due for some regression due to age (David Ortiz, Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli) and inferior/untested replacements for Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Stephen Drew. That said, Boston's offense is still a formidable one, especially if Xander Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks, and Jackie Bradley, Jr. step up this year and Grady Sizemore stays healthy. Red Sox also have an incredibly deep farm system to tap into during the season should they need to call up reinforcements or use prospects as trade chips. Like Tampa Bay, Boston's strength is depth, not star power.

3rd Place New York Yankees
2013 Record: 85-77
2013 Pythagorean: 79-83
2014 Projected: 88-74
Without Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez, New York's infield has the potential to be a train-wreck (minus Brian McCann), but Mark Teixeira's a good bounce back candidate and you can never count Derek Jeter out. Brian Roberts is a lost cause, but Kelly Johnson's lefty power should play well at the Stadium. He could pop 20 homers. McCann might blast 30, and at the very least should top 25 for the first time in his career. The outfield is much improved with Brett Gardner in left, Jacoby Ellsbury in center and Carlos Beltran in right/sharing DH duties with Alfonso Soriano. The rotation is full of question marks but has the potential to be very good. Masahiro Tanaka looks like an ace, CC Sabathia could rebound, Hiroki Kuroda's been consistently excellent, Ivan Nova is a popular breakout candidate and Michael Pineda's finally healthy. David Phelps is decent enough when he's called upon to start and should wind up being a terrific reliever. The bullpen will miss Mariano Rivera, obviously, but David Robertson's dominant in his own right and should be a more than adequate replacement. The Yankees definitely have enough star power to win the division, but too many question marks, declining players and injury concerns will likely prevent them from doing so.

4th Place Baltimore Orioles
2013 Record: 85-77
2013 Pythagorean: 85-77
2014 Projected: 83-79
Baltimore made some interesting moves at the tail-end of the offseason, signing Ubaldo Jimenez to bolster their thin rotation and stealing Nelson Cruz. I'm not buying Jimenez's crazy stretch run and I think he's really going to struggle in the AL East. Cruz adds power but not much else, and power wasn't something the Orioles needed in the first place (not when they already had Chris Davis, Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, and Matt Wieters). Davis and Manny Machado won't be as good as they were a year ago, and I'm not sure if Nick Markakis can hit for power anymore, but Baltimore's offense still projects to be among the league's best. Their rotation isn't anything special, especially after factoring in regression for Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman. Losing top prospect Dylan Bundy to elbow surgery was a big blow, so they'll need top prospect Kevin Gausman to make an impact instead.  The bullpen's a bit shaky at the back end with Tommy Hunter, a significant step down from Jim Johnson, expected to be the closer, but I like the rest of their relief corps just fine. The Orioles will have no problem scoring runs and play strong defense, but they just don't have enough starting pitching to make a serious run at the division. Therefore, I expect Baltimore to finish around 85 wins again.

5th Place Toronto Blue Jays
2013 Record: 74-88
2013 Pythagorean: 77-85
2014 Projected: 78-84
I want to like the Blue Jays. I really do. They essentially have the same team that everyone thought was going to win the World Series last year (everyone except me, of course), sans Josh Johnson (who, surprise, is already hurt again) and slugging backstop J.P. Arencibia. Their lineup features an impressive array of talent at almost every position: an outfield of Jose Bautista, Colby Rasmus and Melky Cabrera, Jose Reyes at shortstop, breakout candidate Brett Lawrie at third, and Adam Lind and Edwin Encarnacion splitting first base and DH duties. That team can hit. What they can't do, however, is pitch, and that's going to be their downfall. The rotation really could have used Jimenez or Ervin Santana given that its two best pitchers--R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle--are merely average. J.A. Happ just isn't good, and Brandon Morrow can't stay healthy. Their bullpen features Casey Janssen, Sergio Santos and Brett Cecil--all tremendous--but won't be much use if Toronto's starters can't pitch deep into games and keep the score close. The Blue Jays' lack of starting pitching is crippling enough to submarine what is an otherwise terrific team, and it looks like the front office's go-for-broke trades aren't going to end the franchise's postseason drought dating back to 1993.

Thanks to Grantland's always-excellent Jonah Keri for some help with this one.

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