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Written by James Brown   

Friday, 27 March 2009

This is the second in a series of six Major League Baseball divisional previews. Check them all out right here. Today’s featured division is the toughest in sports.  While Boston and New York have consistently fought for division supremacy, the upstart Rays went on to win the division and the American League before running out of gas in the World Series.


2008 Standings:

Team W L
Tampa Bay Rays 97 65
Boston Red Sox 95 67
New York Yankees 89 73
Toronto Blue Jays 86 76
Baltimore Orioles 68 93

2008 Summary

The biggest story of the AL East, last season, was unquestionably the arrival of Adam Jones in Baltimore. Oh wait, probably that whole Devil Rays thing. Yes, I threw in the 'Devil' out of spite. A franchise like that can’t undo the hideous color-schemed, Jason Tyner-replica jerseys I saw throughout the stands all those years just by dropping the 'Devil'. Oh, and your "miracle" run to the World Series isn't such a "miracle" when you consider you lucked into a Scott Kazmir trade no one defended at the time, and you've been picking #1 overall in the draft since the Clinton administration. Even the Clippers would succeed if they got to draft LeBron James every freaking year. Tampa Bay Rays fans, let's just say I didn't see many of you around in, oh, 2007.

The division runner-up Boston Red Sox won the wild card, and advanced to the ALCS (should have been the World Series) against Tampa Bay. Injuries to Josh Beckett, David Ortiz, and Mike Lowell hurt them throughout the year. Oh yeah, J.D. Drew was "injured", too. And the Green Monster remained green. Bill Simmons and I seem to be the only ones upset that Manny Ramirez was traded, as Red Sox Nation welcomed Jason Bay- and a world where the highest paid Red Sox (sock? I've been a lifelong fan- Mike Greenwell costumes for Halloween in elementary school- and I don't know the syntax) is... JD Drew. ]Jason Varitek also aged 50 years last season. The season was somewhat of a transition, as Dustin Pedroia is now an MVP winner, and Kevin Youkilis became a household name for something other than 'Moneyball'.

The Yankees didn't make the playoffs. The bigger story in New York is not what happened last season, but what happened in the offseason. Fueled by a bunch of big contracts coming off the books (headlined by cheater Jason Giambi) the Yankees went on the market and did their usual Evil Empire thing, signing the top free agent hitter (Mark Teixeira) and the top free agent pitcher (C.C. Sabathia - or as I call him, KK Sabathia. And that means 'Krispy Kreme', not anything about strikeouts). And some guy named A-Rod got caught for infidelity, steroids, lying, and kissing a mirror. This should get interesting.

The Blue Jays somehow won 86 games in this brutal division. And their manager didn't challenge any of their players to a fight. The Orioles did their recent history thing and completed another losing season.

Postion Baltimore Orioles Boston Red Sox New York Yankees Tampa Bay Rays Toronto Blue Jays
Catcher Gregg Zaun (S) Jason Varitek (S) Jorge Posada (S) Dioner Navarro (S) Rod Barajas (R)
First Base Aubrey Huff (L) Kevin Youkilis (R) Mark Teixeira (S) Carlos Pena (L) Lyle Overbay (L)
Second Base Brian Roberts (S) Dustin Pedroia (R) Robinson Cano (L) Akinori Iwamura (L) Aaron Hill (R)
Third Base Melvin Mora (R) Mike Lowell (R) Cody Ransom (R) Evan Longoria (R) Scott Rolen (R)
Shortstop Cesar Izturis (S) Jed Lowrie (S) Derek Jeter (R) Jason Bartlett (R) Marco Scutaro (R)
Left Field Felix Pie (L) Jason Bay (R) Johnny Damon (L) Carl Crawford (L) Adam Lind (L)
Center Field Adam Jones (R) Jacoby Ellsbury (L) Brett Gardner (L) B.J. Upton (R) Vernon Wells (R)
Right Field Nick Markakis (L) J.D. Drew (L) Xavier Nady (R) Matt Joyce (L) Alexis Rios (R)
DH Luke Scott (L) David Ortiz (L) Hideki Matsui (L) Pat Burrell (R) Travis Snider (L)
Bench Ryan Freel (R) Julio Lugo (R) Nick Swisher (S) Gabe Gross (L) Kevin Millar (R)
Bench Ty Wigginton (R) Rocco Baldelli (R) Melky Cabrera (S) Ben Zobrist (S) John McDonald (R)
Bench Matt Wieters (S) George Kottaras (L) Angel Berroa (R) Willy Aybar (S) Jose Bautista (R)
Starting Pitcher Jeremy Guthrie (R) Josh Beckett (R) C.C. Sabathia (L) James Shields (R) Roy Halladay (R)
Starting Pitcher Koji Uehara (R) Daisuke Matsuzaka (R) A.J. Burnett (R) Scott Kazmir (L) Jesse Litsch (R)
Starting Pitcher Chris Waters (L) Jon Lester (L) Chien-Ming Wang (R) Matt Garza (R) David Purcey (L)
Starting Pitcher Rich Hill (L) Tim Wakefield (R) Andy Pettitte (L) Andy Sonnanstine (R) Scott Richmond (R)
Starting Pitcher Adam Eaton (R) Brad Penny (R) Joba Chamberlain (R) Jeff Niemann (R) Casey Janssen (R)
Relief Pitcher Jim Johnson (R) Justin Masterson (R) Brian Bruney (R) Dan Wheeler (R) Brandon League (R)
Relief Pitcher Chris Ray (R) Hideki Okajima (L) Damaso Marte (L) Grant Balfour (R) Scott Downs (L)
Closer George Sherrill (L) Jonathan Papelbon (R) Mariano Rivera (R) Troy Percival (R) B.J. Ryan (L)

Individual Team Previews:

Baltimore Orioles -  I actually like a lot of the youth on this team.  Divisional MVP candidate Nick Markakis is a stud, and they've completed the outfield by bringing in former uber-prospects Adam Jones and Felix Pie in trades the last two offseasons. Those guys haven't been extraordinary in their limited big league service time, but the fact remains the talent is there.  Also expected this season is the arrival of Matt Wieters. That sound you hear is fantasy nerds making their keeper league transactions or me printing out his divisional Rookie of the Year. As an overall outlook for the team, this season will be short on wins, but there's some preseason excitement, at least, over the youth movement. And any sort of excitement is better than what's been in Baltimore for a while.

Boston Red Sox -  I know, mock my homerism for the division title prediction.  But then look down the depth chart, the bullpen, the prospects ready to step in... you're seeing it too, right? 98 wins. Josh Beckett's health alone may be worth 3 more wins than last season. But then there's the fact this is one of the top defensive teams in MLB (how often do you say that about Boston?). I also have an elaborate theory about the Red Sox missing out on Teixeira, then staying pat to wait for a financially strapped team to unload something in July. Miguel Cabrera, come on down! This theory gains more steam daily, it seems.

The Red Sox traded Coco Crisp, who had become the fourth outfielder, but was critical down the stretch when Jacoby Ellsbury faded. To me, this is a critical year for Jacoby, because he needs to step up a little bit. As far as incoming players, Boston signed a series of potentially high-reward guys that could prove to be incredible bargains. I'm very intrigued by Rocco Baldelli, as supposedly they've figured out a lot about what's actually wrong with him, and he could return to form. Every time I hear the name Brad Penny, I think of the time he started the All Star Game and, knowing he wasn’t going to pitch 7+ innings, was consistently hitting 100+ mph on the radar gun and overpowering people. At any rate, Brad Penny and A.J. Burnett are approximately equal, and in Boston that means Penny is the #5, in New York Burnett is the #2. And who doesn't love John Smoltz? Pirate mustache + multi-sport pedigree means you're assured some level of man crush from me. I also think the Red Sox bullpen will continue to be strong in the back end (Papelbon, Okajima) but benefit from the emergence of Justin Masterson and arrival of Takashi Saito.

New York Yankees -  I've already touched on the key newcomers: CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett, and Mark Teixeira. But the biggest story for the season comes from the biggest name in the game: Alex Rodriguez. Yes, there's the steroids, and off-the-field stuff. Like being photographed kissing a mirror. But the biggest story is the torn labrum in his hip. A-Rod will be out at the beginning of the year. I'm no medical expert, but Mike Lowell has this injury last year and looked terrible. So much so that Lowell, the 2007 World Series MVP, is listed as the 26th option at third base by ESPN's default fantasy rankings. A-Rod is obviously a better player than Lowell, but that is still a precipitous fall because of this labrum thing. I also am wary of how long A-rod could actually be out.

C.C. Sabathia does not have an injury history. However, he weighs like 500 lbs, and pitched roughly 4,000 innings last year. And there isn't a good history for players continuing their contract year numbers the year after signing the big contract. So I'm a little skeptical about how this works out, he's got to miss at least a couple starts, even if nothing catastrophic happens, right? I count Xavier Nady among the newcomers, as he was a deadline deal and played 59 games for the Yankees last year. I really think he's going to breakout this season.  Reports are he's going to bat cleanup against lefties, and he’ll certainly benefit from being in that lineup, as the likely everyday starter in right field. He's also in a contract year.

Tampa Bay Rays -  The Rays have been stockpiling young talent for years.  I count their lineup as, 1-9, the best in the East- partly because of A-Rod and Manny Ramirez's absence, partly because of the question marks surrounding David Ortiz, but mostly because of the emergence of Evan Longoria, resurgence of Carlos Pena, and addition of Pat Burrell. It was hard for me not to give the nod to actual results (i.e. Terry Francona), but my pick for "Best Manager" in this division was Joe Maddon.

I think these Rays are too talented for a significant drop-off from last season. David Price and other reinforcements are on the way up from that incredible minor league system. I did pick a slight decline to 93 games, and a wild card berth, mainly because I think Boston made more beneficial off-season personnel moves (and will make more, around the deadline). Many times, teams coming off a World Series appearance face injury problems with their starting pitching the next season. We also recently saw a young, talented Cleveland team take a big step backward after their own ALCS run. I don’t think it's a stretch to see a slight step backward out of this talented group, but I also expect this team to remain in the playoff mix for the foreseeable future.

Toronto Blue Jays -  Roy Halladay is money in the bank. He's my pick as the division Cy Young award winner, and has to be considered one of the top, if not the top, contender for the AL Cy. The Blue Jays surprising 86 wins last season was due to the rest of the staff, A.J. Burnett turning it into the lucrative deal to go to New York, and Jesse Litsch's excellent campaign. I think the Litsch performance was somewhat of a fluke, and expect his regression to directly influence a decline in Toronto's total wins. This just looks to me as a transition year for Toronto, as it is clear they won't be in the playoff hunt above the division's trio of excellent teams (indeed, NYY, BOS, and TB are arguably the top 3 teams in MLB).

While I think Adam Lind could be somewhat of a late bloomer and finally become some version of what we thought he could be this season, and I expect lots of emphasis to be on the development of Travis Snider, Toronto will probably look at the competitive landscape and try to build for the future. I expect them to be a team that is selling near the trade deadline, and for management to use August and September to give a lot of prospects their shot, thus explaining my 9 game fall from last season’s win total. Toronto is not a terrible team, and would probably win the NL West or NL wild card, because of team leaders Halladay, Vernon Wells, and Alex Rios, but in this division I think they’ll fall behind the juggernauts and start trading away some pieces for prospects. Why does a team without a chance need such great talent in the 8th or 9th innings? Why should they stick with Scott Rolen at 3rd base, when plenty of contenders could use an extra veteran bat? This prediction of a 5th place finish is just a reflection on their being in the toughest division in sports.

Projected 2009 Standings

Team W L Boston Red Sox 98 64
Tampa Bay Rays 93 69
New York Yankees 90 72
Baltimore Orioles 75 87
Toronto Blue Jays 74 88

Divisional All-Star Team:

If I were to make an all-star team with the best players at each position (including the bench and bullpens) it would look like this:

Best Player Team
C Jorge Posada (S) Yankees
1B Mark Teixeira (S) Yankees
2B Dustin Pedroia (R) Red Sox
3B Evan Longoria (R) Rays
SS Derek Jeter (R) Yankees
LF Carl Crawford (L) Rays
CF B.J. Upton (R) Rays
RF Nick Markakis (L) Orioles
DH David Ortiz (L) Red Sox
B Nick Swisher (S) Red Sox
B Rocco Baldelli (R) Red Sox
B Matt Wieters (S) Orioles
SP Roy Halladay (R) Blue Jays
SP Josh Beckett (R) Red Sox
SP C.C. Sabathia (L) Yankees
SP Scott Kazmir (L) Rays
SP Jon Lester (L) Red Sox
RP Grant Balfour (R) Rays
RP Scott Downs (L) Blue Jays
CL Jonathan Papelbon (R) Red Sox

Team Superlatives:

Best Lineup: Rays
Best Fielding: Red Sox
Best Bench: Red Sox
Best Starting Five: Red Sox
Best Bullpen: Blue Jays
Best Manager: Joe Maddon, Rays

Individual Player Superlatives:

Divisional MVP: Nick Markakis, Orioles
Divisional Cy Young: Roy Halladay, Blue Jays
Divisional Rookie of the Year: Matt Wieters, Orioles
Breakout Hitter: Xavier Nady, Yankees
Breakout Pitcher: David Price, Rays

Let me know your thoughts on my predictions, or man up and tell me how you think it's going to go down.