Dugout Central’s American League East Preview
By: Bob Owens
Last year, four out of the five teams in the A.L. East had at least 85 wins, and the division has earned a reputation as the toughest in baseball. Come 2011, will this division maintain its excellence, or will some of these teams fall off a cliff? In alphabetical order, let us take a look.
The lone team to finish under .500, the Orioles have had a busy, and by many accounts, productive off-season, and could actuall vie for a playoff spot this year.
Infielders: The Orioles have added 3 new players to their infield with steady second baseman Brian Roberts the lone holdover. Derrek Lee will man first base, although he is not the most adept guy from the defensive standpoint, he should add some decent pop. J.J Hardy will cover the shortstop position. But perhaps the key to their team is Mark Reynolds, who they acquired from Arizona in exchange for a couple of relief pitchers. Reynolds has very good power, but has led the National League in strikeouts the past three seasons. Despite that dubious distinction, he also draws a fair amount of walks. if he can cut down just a tad on the K’s the Orioles may have added themselves a solid talent at the hot corner.
Outfielders: The Orioles have a pair of very good two-way players in rightfielder Nick Markakis and up-and-coming centerfielder Adam Jones. Although Markakis has had a two-year decline in power numbers, the presence of Lee and Reynolds plus their new DH should/ could help his offense. Luke Scott, their DH of a year ago will probably play left field, although he may not play it well. His bat is what keeps him in the line-up. Felix Pie will most likely be their 4th outfielder.
Catcher: The other key to the line-up of the Orioles is catcher Matt Wieters. A year ago many writers were predicting he would surpass Joe Mauer as the best offensive catcher in baseball and thought he had a realistic shot at the MVP. Clearly that did not happen, although I am still high on him and think he could reach superstar status this year. Jake Fox will probably be the back-up.
Designated Hitter: In early Febuary, the Orioles ponied up 8 million dollars for Vladimir Guerrero to handle the clean-up spot. Last year he was tremendous for the Texas Rangers, but this move compells the Orioles to install the defensively-challenged Luke Scott in left field, and could also force them to play Nolan Reimhold in Triple A. How wise was this move to do that? He is somewhat brittle now and this could be a mistake. On the other hand, he could be solid for one more year and could provide the Orioles with one last hurrah.
Starting pitching: While the Orioles have no clear ace to anchor their rotation, that could soon change. Left-hander Brian Matusz could soon become that pitcher. Drafted 4th overall from the University of San Diego in the 2008 draft, Matusz struggled early but turned things around after Buck Showalter took over the managerial role. In his last eleven games he posted a 2.18 ERA with 52 strikouts vs only 16 walks, and a 1.03 WHIP. He could very well join the Sabathia’s and the Price’s of the East this year as a legit contender for the Cy Young.
In addition to Matusz, the Orioles also have four other starters, who should at least be passable. The underrated Jeremy Guthrie, Brad Bergenson, Jake Arrieta and reclamation project, Justin Duchscherer, who could be a huge bargain round out the starting five. Bergeson is a lefty, while the other three guys are right-handed. Should any of the five need a breather or get injured, the Orioles also have Chris Tillman and Zach Britton, two promising youngsters to provide depth.
Bullpen:While the Orioles bullpen has no proven closer following the arrest of Alfredo Simon in the Dominican Republic, both Kevin Gregg and Koji Uehara could be used in that role. Former Braves’ closer, lefty Mike Gonzalez, is also a possibility. Jason Berken and Jim Johnson, barring injuries should also be locks to make the team. Jeremy Accardo, Rick VandenHurk, Troy Patton and Clay Rapada will all compete for the other two spots in the pen. (I assume a 12 man.)
Fearless prediction. The Orioles will finish 2nd this year, and they have some talent in the minors that could allow them to make a big trade in July. Prediction. Wild card team.
Boston Red Sox
Last year the Red Sox finished the season with 89 wins, good enough for 3rd place, but their playoff aspirations were derailed by four factors; injuries to several key players, a dubious bullpen, and the prescence of the Yankees and the Rays. But all that did was persaude ownership to be pro-active, both on the trade market (Adrian Gonzalez), and with free agents. ( Carl Crawford). Will this work? While I am biased, I think it will.
Infield: Their infeld will now feature one of the best first basemen in either league in Adrian Gonzalez, a dynamic two-way player. His presence forces the Sox to play Kevin Youkilis at third base, which is actually his natural position. He is one of the players coming off an injury, but pre-injury he also a very good two way player. At second base Dustin Pedroia is coming off of a foot injury, although he recently stated that he is in tip-top shape. The Sox badly need him in their line-up. And my guess is that Jed Lowrie will take over the shortstop position from Marco Scutaro at some point during the season. Lowrie has a very good bat, but no one knows much about his defense, although I submit he will be adequate. The aforementioned Scutaro should be a valuable reserve.
Outfield: The Sox outfield should consist of the steady, but aging and injury-prone J.D. Drew in right field, Jacoby Ellsbury in center and the newly acquired Carl Crawford in left. Both Crawford and Ellsbury are very fleet, and will cover alot of ground on defense, and steal alot of bases on offense. Drew recently however went to see noted doctor James Andrews about his hamstrings which are bothering him. If Drew is out for an extended period of time, it says here that Ryan Kalish will be their rightfielder. If Drew is healthy enough to start, Kalish will probably stay in Pawtucket while Mike Cameron will be their 4th outfielder. Darnell McDonald will probably be their 5th outfielder. Daniel Nava and Josh Reddick could also see time in Boston this year.
Catcher: The weakest spot for the Sox, both on offense and defense is at catcher. Jason Varitek is returning, but is 39 years old and another one of the players coming off an injury. Their starter most likely will be Jarrod Saltalamacchia, a guy that general manager Theo Epstein has been high on for awhile.
Designated hitter: Their DH will be David Ortiz whose option was picked up by the Sox in early November. He is clearly declining, but also could be motivated to put up huge numbers as he has said he wants to play for 2-3 more years.
Starting pitching: The Red Sox on paper could have the strongest rotation in the East, featuring two guys, lefty Jon Lester and righty Clay Bucholz, who both recieved votes last year for the Cy Young. Josh Beckett also returns and wants to reclaim his spot as the best pitcher on the team. John Lackey reported to camp having lost 15 pounds, hoping to put a somewhat disappointing first season in Boston behind him. Diasuke Matsuzaka will again be their 5th starter. Should any of the 5 get injured, Felix Doubrant, a young lefty will probably be the guy who gets the most spot starts this season.
Bullpen: Assuming a seven-man bullpen, Jonathon Papelbon will close, but if he falters, Daniel Bard could surpass him. Boston signed former White Sox closer Bobby Jenks, leading some to believe Paplebon may be on his way out. Tim Wakefield and Dan Wheeler are also locks with Hideki Okajima probably making the team cause he is left-handed. That leaves Alfredo Aceves, Matt Albers, Scott Atchinson and Denys Reyes contesting for one spot. Aceves could also go to Pawtucket and try to start for their minor league team. Barring a trade or injury, I would venture that Aceves or Atchinson gets the last spot.
Two fearless predictions. The Sox win the East, and with Crawford and Ellsbury leading the way, they lead the league in stolen bases.
New York Yankees.
Last year the Yankees made it to the second round of the playoffs. Did they have have a productive enough off-season to take it one ( or two) steps further? Let’s find out
Infield: If the Yankees infielders were in their prime this year, they would be incredible, but alas Derek Jeter their Gold-Glove winning shortstop is aging and hit a career low .270 last year. But he is only 74 hits away from reaching the coveted milestone of 3000 hits for his career. I have no doubt he will reach that level this year, and will naturally do it against Boston. At third base the Yanks have another future HOFer in Alex Rodriguez. While his skills are also eroding, he should continue to put up viable numbers. They just will not be elite anymore. Mark Teixiera and Robinson Cano are now the infielder on the Yankees who are two-way stalwarts, although Teixiera is coming off an injury. Two veterans who could make the team as back-ups include Eric Chavez and Ronnie Belliard.
Outfield: The outfield of the Yankees is nothing special, although I suppose centerfielder Curtis Granderson still has some upside. Right-fielder Nick Swisher, in the last year of his contract and the speedster Brett Gardner will play, although he is also capable of playing center field. Andruw Jones was signed to a free-agent contract, and could see alot of time as their 4th outfielder. If the Yankees decide to carry five outfielders, it will most likely be a battle between Greg Golson and Justin Maxwell. If Maxwell is healthy come the end of March, I suspect he will prevail.
Catching: The Yankees signed former Dodger star Russell Martin to handle the bulk of the catching. While inconsistent with the Dodgers, he embarked on an off-season regimen that entailed him exercising with stars of the mixed martials arts. It says here that Martin will be the second best catcher in the East this year, behind Matt Wieters of Baltimore. Francisco Cervelli will most likely be their reserve catcher, although Jesus Montero, their prized prospect could get a look-see as well.
Designated Hitter: The veteran catcher Jorge Posada has been relegated to full-time DH as his body can no longer handle the rigors of catching.
Starting pitching: This could be their undoing. Obviously the Yanks have a stud in lefty C.C. Sabathia and perhaps a star-in-the-making in Phil Hughes, but the rest of their staff is mediocre at best. A.J.Burnet has shown flashes of brilliance but has just been too unpredictable. The other two spots will be a 4 -way toss-up between Sergio Mitre, Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon. Not about to hazard a guess as to who the victors will be.
Bullpen: The Yankees bullpen has Mariano Rivera as its closer for 2 more years. Enough said there. They also acquired Rafael Soriano to pitch the 8th inning and periodically give Rivera a breather. Pedro Feliciano and David Robertson are two other locks. Other players in the mix include Joba Chamberlain, Daniel Turpin, Robert Fish and the losers of the 4th and 5th spots in the rotation. Andrew Brackman also has a provision in his contract that compels the Yankees to keep him on their 25-man roster this year barring an (un) foreseen injury. It is also possible he becomes a starter.
Fearless prediction. The only pleasant thing for the Yanks this year is Jeter getting hit 3000, as they finish in last place.
Tampa Bay Rays
Last year the Rays won 96 games to win the East, but faltered in the playoffs, losing in the first round to Texas. The early ouster cost the franchise a lot of money, and saw a sizable amount of talent flee Tampa for, ahem greener pastures. Did they retain enough talent to once again be a force in the East?
Infield: Last year third baseman Evan Longoria cemented himself as one of the best players in the game. This year he may prove to be the best player in either league. Reid Brignac is their shortstop and he should be solid. Dan Johnson, who is also capable of playing a corner outfield should replace Carlos Pena at first. Their second baseman should be Sean Rodriguez.
Outfielders: While the departure of Carl Crawford leaves a glaring hole atop the batting order, the Rays do have some quality depth. Desmond Jennings is a legitimate ROY candidate, and B.J.Upton is also very talented. That leaves Matt Joyce, Johnny Damon and Ben Zobrist competing for the other outfield spot.
Catcher: The Rays have two viable catchers with John Jaso and Kelly Shoppach. Jaso will probably get the majority of starts, but Shoppach is serviceable.
Designated hitter: Manny Ramirez was signed to a one year deal in late January for this position. He has burned some bridges in Boston and LA, so perhaps he will really feel the need to produce at a high level. If his attitude and production continue to be sub-par, once again Joyce, Damon or Zobrist could fill that role.
Starting pitching: The staff should be anchored by David Price, who may be the best pitcher in baseball not named Felix Hernandez. Jeremy Hellickson is another potential ROY candidate, and could become a major force as well. James Shields, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann round out a solid quintet.
Bullpen: No team took it harder in the off-season than the Rays when it came to losing bullpen talent Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour , Joaquin Benoit and Dan Wheeler were all lost to free-agency with Soriano( Yankees) and Wheeler (Red Sox ) going straight to division rivals. This year they will feature Kyle Farnsworth, J.P Howell, Andy Sonnanstine and Joel Peralta.
Fearless prediction: The Rays bullpen, a source of strength last year is their undoing this year, unless they trade some prospects from a very deep system for an arm or three. Finish fourth behind Boston, Baltimore and Toronto.
Toronto Blue Jays
The fourth team to finish with a record above .500, the Blue Jays had a breakout year from Jose Bautista, which allowed them to rid themselves of longtime star Vernon Wells and his contract. While they will save themselves alot of money, and will no doubt spend heavy on the draft this year, the 2011 Jays created a hole in centerfield. Let us look at the other areas of their team.
Infielders: The Jays will feature an infield that probably has either Adam Lind or rookie Scott Cooper as their first baseman, Aaron Hill at second, Yunel Escobar at short and rookie Brett Lawrie at third. Lawrie is an interesting talent as he may be capable of playing shortstop and second as well as third.
Outfield: Two thirds of their outfield is set with the aforementioned Bautista and his league-leading 54 homers will play right field and Travis Snider will man man the other corner. The center fielder will most likely be either Rajia Davis or Anthony Gose. Juan Rivera could be their 5th outfielder
Catcher: The starter at catcher should be J.P Arencibia, who has a chance at becoming a star this year. Jose Molina will be their very servicable back-up. They have a nice tandem.
Starting Pitching: The Jays have assembled some interesting arms for this year. The guess here is that righty Brandon Morrow becomes their best pitcher, while lefties Brett Cecil and Ricky Romero not too far behind. Kyle Drabek will probably become their fourth starter and could vie for ROY. The fifth starter will most likely come from either Jesse Litsch, Dustin McGowan or Marc Rzepczynski. The first two are righties while Rzepczynski is the lone lefty.
Bullpen: Again, the Jays have some quality arms in the pen as well. Frank Francisco, Jesse Carlson, Jason Frasor, Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch should all make the roster along with whomever does not win the last rotation spot.
Fearless prediction. The Jays finish third this year.
And one last fearless prediction. Come October, I will eat alot of crow from you guys