Thursday, March 16, 2006

AL East Preview

New York Yankees
The Yankees are coming into the season with many of the same problems that plagued them last year. The AL East will be a close race, but it looks like the Yankees are the early favorites.
Starting Pitching
If the Yankees can get good starting pitching, they can run away in the East. If not, it'll be as close as it was last year. Randy Johnson is finally showing his age (42 this year), meaning that he's no longer an elite starter, and may not even be above-average for much longer. Mike Mussina is younger (37), but even more questionable in terms of health (4.41 ERA in 179.2 IP last season). The Yankees lucked into some great production last year from Shawn Chacon, Chein-Ming Wang, and Aaron Small. But the only one who can be reliably counted upon for good work this year is Wang, and perhaps Chacon. Picking up the slack is whatever is left of Carl Pavano (still not sure when he'll be ready), and Jaret Wright, who got a sweetheart (AKA stupid) deal from the Yankees last off-season, and now they're stuck paying him.
Mariano Rivera is as solid as ever, but the Yanks might miss Tom Gordon, who was baseball's best setup man over the last few years. In his place is Kyle Farnsworth, who had a great 2005, but isn't nearly as consistent. The Yanks have Octavio Dotel, a player with high upside who has struggled the past couple of years. After that it's a bit bare, with lefty specialist Mike Myers and Torre's Favorite Son (though why, we don't know) Tanyon Sturtze.
Jason Giambi returns at first base, which doesn't bode well for the defense, but Giambi came back as an elite hitter in 2005 (271/440/535). Reigning MVP Alex Rodriguez is still one of the best players in baseball, but no one wants to like him, and this fact colors almost all of the press he gets (especially in NYC).
Middle Infield
You've got good offense here, from Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano, but defense be damned. Jeter actually does appear to be getting better at shortstop (meaning he's not quite as awful), whereas the Yanks hope that Cano will get better offensively (297/320/458) as well. It should be noted here that the Yankees had one of the worst defenses in all of baseball last year, and this cost them a lot. Other than the acquisition of Johnny Damon, the Yanks haven't gotten much better this year, and in fact, everybody's going to be one year older.
The Yanks have a very strong outfield offense, with Matsui (305/367/496) and Sheffield (291/379/512) manning the corners. Johnny Damon is an upgrade in center, but is vastly overrated. Everyone's expecting Damon to save the Yankees. And, like Beltran last season with the Mets, Damon will get blamed for everyone's artificially high expectations. Damon still runs well and is a far sight better than Bernie Williams defensively, but his 2005 hitting line of (316/366/439) won't translate quite as well to Yankee Stadium. It will still be good, obviously, but not savior good. And at age 32, he's only going to get worse from here.
Jorge Posada, formerly one of the more underrated backstops in the game, has finally started showing his age. Posada turns 35 this season, meaning his 2005 hitting line of 262/352/430 is only going to trend downward. It's still great for a catcher, but Posada is no longer as strong defensively as he once was.
The Yanks have tentatively slotted Bernie Williams as their DH, although his 2005 hitting line of 249/321/367 makes that a questionable decision. At least Ruben Sierra is gone, he who was given 170 ABs as the DH last year despite hitting 265/271/429.
The Yankees tend to show odd tastes in selecting bench players, and this year is no different. The Yankees still seem to see something in Bubba Crosby, although God only knows what (221/253/301 lifetime). Miguel Cairo is a capable utility infielder, although Kelly Stinnett is an odd choice for backup catcher for a team with this much money. The Yanks do have Andy Phillips, a fine-hitting minor league first baseman, to spot Giambi at first and share time at DH.
Despite inner-office rumblings over the past few years, George Steinbrenner has recommitted to GM Brian Cashman and manager Joe Torre. Cashman's new deal comes with the tacit agreement that he will no longer be undermined by the team's Tampa office. This is certainly good news for Cashman, who may have the toughest job in baseball.
The second-toughest goes to Joe Torre. Despite coming under criticism for his bizarre strategic decisions in recent years, Torre does seem able to hold together a difficult Yankee clubhouse while withstanding the heat from Steinbrenner.
Projected Finish: 1st place

Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox could conceivably win anywhere between 75-95 games. Peter Gammons is correct when he states that the Red Sox have so many unknown variables that, at this point, it's anyone's best guess where they'll finish.
Starting Pitching
Well, they've got a lot of starting pitchers (7 or so) but nobody knows who, if anyone, will be any damn good. Curt Schilling is coming off an injury-plagued 2005, and this 39-year-old's days as an elite starter, and maybe even an above-average starter, may be over. Or not.
Josh Beckett is the safest bet of the bunch. Many people are still blinded by Beckett's Postseason Halo, since he was the 2003 World Series MVP against the Yankees. But it hasn't made him an elite pitcher yet (he turns 26 in May), and it's looking less and less likely that he'll be anything but the quality -- if injury-prone -- guy that he is.
Matt Clement seemed like a safe bet when the Sox signed him as a free agent last year. But after getting off to a good start, Clement struggled in the second half, finishing with a 4.57 ERA in just 191 innings. This could be an off year, or just the realization that he's 31 years old. Tim Wakefield was, believe it or not, probably the Sox's best pitcher last season, eating up 225.1 IP with a decent 4.15 ERA and 151 K (despite a league-leading 35 HR allowed). But Wakefield is as unpredictable as his knuckleball, so there are no guarantees there. David Wells will likely be the fifth starter, but it's unclear how much this soon-to-be 42-year-old has left, or even if he gives a damn anymore (he asked for a trade away from Boston in the fall, then reversed himself when it became clear that it wasn't happening).
Backing up this uncertain bunch is Bronson Arroyo, reliably decent, and young phenom Jon Papelbon. The Sox are very wary of rushing this future star into the rotation, but I doubt the Fenway Faithful will have any patience if the starting rotation plummets in May.
Can Keith Foulke still be a major league closer? Nobody knows until he gets out there, which is a troubling prospect. The Sox re-signed Mike Timlin, who filled in brilliantly at closer for them last year, but 2005 was a monster career year for the 40-year-old, so it's unlikely he has any more miracles left.
Arroyo and Papelbon are here, at least to start. The Sox signed Julian Tavarez and Rudy Seanez, both of whom were strong middle relievers in 2005. They got Guillermo Mota as a throw-in in the Beckett deal, but it's doubtful that Mota can recapture his Los Angeles glory. Jon Lester is the Boston closer of the future, but he's probably going to need more time before being thrust into that spotlight.
The Sox are going to cross their fingers at the infield corners. Third base will go to Mike Lowell, acquired (along with his salary) from Florida in the Beckett deal. Lowell had an awful 2005 (236/298/360), but it was most likely just a slump. If this 32-year-old can just reproduce his career averages (272/339/461 in an NL pitcher's park) and provide solid defense, the Sox will get a good return on their money.
The acquisition of Lowell pushes Moneyball hero Kevin Youkilis over to first base. Youkilis is a good hitter for a third baseman (265/376/411 career), but first base is another story. The Sox signed glove man J.T. Snow to share some time with him.
Middle Infield
The Sox stole 2B Mark Loretta from the Padres in the pre-season. Loretta is getting older and can probably never recapture his 2003-2004 glory, but he'll still be one of the league's best 2B at around $4 million. Shortstop Alex Cora is as temporary as they come, but the Sox will just plug him into the 9 hole and deal with his all-field-no-hit status until they can upgrade.
The Sox will be hurt by the loss of Johnny Damon, but not as much as people think. As I examined in this previous entry, new CF Coco Crisp isn't much worse than Damon at all. He's also younger and infinitely cheaper. So while this will hurt the Sox in the short run, it will be the best for the team overall.
Manny Ramirez is in left field, ho hum. More off-field dramatics, crybaby antics, and -- oh, yeah -- MVP-esque hitting (292/388/594 in '05).
Right field will be played by Trot Nixon and sponsored by the American Red Cross. Seriously, though, Nixon is brittle for 31 (32 in April), and the Sox will need a backup outfielder who can hit, since Nixon has barely averaged 100 games played over the last 3 seasons. But when he's healthy, he can still hit with the best of them (275/357/446 in '05).
Jason Varitek is still damn good (281/366/489 in '05), but keep your eye on the clock (he turns 34 in April). It's unclear who will serve as backup catcher for the Sox. 2005 backup Doug Mirabelli was traded, and free agent replacement John Flaherty recently retired. So who knows?
It may surprise you to hear that David Ortiz is not the second coming of the Christ. And, clutch hitting aside (as it should be), Ortiz may not even be the best DH in the AL:
David Ortiz 2004: 301/380/603
Travis Hafner 2004: 311/410/583
David Ortiz 2005 (age 29): 300/397/604
Travis Hafner 2005 (age 27): 305/408/595
Ortiz is more durable and plays more games than Hafner, but he also plays in a much friendlier hitter's ballpark.
That aside, I think I can safely say that being the second-best DH in the AL is still pretty damned good.
The Sox have Tony Graffanino to serve as utility infielder, but word is they're trying to trade him. Infielder Dustin Pedroia could find some time in the infield; he's a rising prospect in the Sox system. Fourth outfield duties are unclear at this point; rookies Adam Stern and David Murphy could be early candidates. Not a lot too get too excited about here.
The off-season circus is over, and Theo Epstein is back. It may not pay immediate dividends, as I've said, but the Sox appear poised to build another winner. Manager Terry Francona rates highly among most observers and recently signed a contract extension.
Projected Finish: 2nd place

Toronto Blue Jays
I'm not prepared to jump on the Toronto bandwagon just yet. While it's possible they'll be able to contend with Boston and New York, it's no sure thing. Their pitching has improved since last year, and their hitting might have taken a step forward, but I don't think it's nearly enough to vault this team much higher than 90 wins, if that.
Starting Pitching
Ace Roy Halladay was on his way to another stellar season in 2005 (2.41 ERA, 108 K in 141.2 IP), when a broken leg ended his year prematurely. If he's healthy, he's one of the best pitchers in baseball, bar none.
The Blue Jays ended up spending a lot of money on A.J. Burnett, and I'm simply not sure that he's anything but above-average. Burnett has a career ERA of 3.73 (110 ERA+), which is good. But he's only thrown more than 120 innings three times in his career, and he's 29 years old. At his best, Burnett could be one of the 10-12 best pitchers in the league, but Burnett has almost never been at his best for very long, and he's not going to get any better at his age. The Jays will probably get quality work from him, but nowhere near enough to justify his giant contract.
Halladay is the only really good pitcher the Blue Jays have, but they've got several pretty good ones. Gustavo Chacin had a fine rookie year in 2005 (3.72 ERA) although his fairly low strikeout rate (121 in 203 IP) is troubling. Josh Towers may not be that promising, but he's solid and is coming off a fine 2005 (3.71 ERA with only 29 BB in 208.2 IP), but he also has a low strikeout rate. Ted Lilly is usually a reliable arm, but had a dreadful 2005 (5.56 ERA). But he should bounce back above mediocrity. Other than Halladay, the Jays won't overwhelm anybody, but I think they'll be surprisingly competent with good depth.
The Jays went the Full Monty on closer B.J. Ryan. This will likely be good news for the next couple years, as Ryan just mowed down hitters last year, but don't coming crying to me, J.P., when you're paying a boatload to a 34-year-old closer.
As with the rotation, the Jays have good depth in the bullpen. There are a lot of unknowns, such as Justin Speier and Jason Frasor, but they're a capable bunch who've toiled in obscurity for the past few years.
The Blue Jays' offensive changes in the off-season saw hitters really coming and going, with the 1B-3B-DH slots serving as a revolving door. Troy Glaus takes over as third baseman. Glaus had a fine 2005 with Arizona, but he's got a killer contract, and his old injuries may yet flare up. Lyle Overbay is an underrated and cheap first baseman (285/373/450 career), but the Jays only have him for this year, unless they can sign an extension. In short, the Jays have improved at the infield corners, but it's not yet clear if it was worth the cost in money and players traded away.
Middle Infield
Toronto pitchers will miss 2B Orlando Hudson (lost in the Glaus deal), perhaps the game's best defensive second baseman. Young Aaron Hill will get the full-time job, but there are no guarantees about when (or if) he'll start producing. Russ Adams, another prospect, mans shortstop. He'll hopefully improve on a dismal 2005 that saw him hit 256/323/383 with awful defense. This could be a big weakness for Toronto.
Everyone seems to think that Alexis Rios will still be a superstar someday. This is where statistical analysis has trumped traditional scouting. Scouting looks at "tools" without bothering to connect it to actual performance. I can't talk about Rios' tools, but I can say that he's a 25-year-old who's only really had one good season of professional baseball (2003 at AA). If he hasn't been able to replicate that one season yet, at age 25, that bus has left the depot.
Vernon Wells is multi-talented, but is not quite the superstar many people envision (being multi-talented is, in the eyes of most commentators, better than having one talent that's just really good). This is mainly because he's merely an adequate hitter; a 285/330/481 career mark in one of the AL's better hitter's parks. But with the defense, he's not such a bad guy to have around.
Left field will likely go to either Frank Catalanotto or Reed Johnson. Both are capable (Catalanotto especially), but this leaves the outfield, which should be a prime source of offense, as especially bare. The Jays are likely going to above-average production from just one outfield position, CF (Wells), and even that's not very above-average. Combine that with a weakness in the middle infield, and it's difficult for me to see where this "contending" team is supposed to be getting its offense from.
The Jays had a reliable (if so-so defensively) catcher in Gregg Zaun, but decided to upgrade with the signing of free agent Bengie Molina. Molina is a fine defender and a good hitter as well. But, again, it's not clear if the upgrade was worth the cost.
Shea Hillenbrand will serve as DH. Hillenbrand isn't bad at all, but I think the Jays are counting a little too much on this career 288/327/448 hitter.
The Jays will have one half of the Catalanotto/Johnson pairing on the bench at all times. They'll also have Eric Hinske, a former Rookie of the Year who just hasn't been nearly as good since. Backup catching duties will go to prospect Guillermo Quiroz.
GM J.P. Ricciardi raised expectations (and payroll) in Toronto by leaps and bounds; the team did not undergo any comparable improvement. While Ricciardi has made the Jays better, he has vastly overpaid and created the expectation of postseason baseball. He's the one who will likely be held responsible if the Jays fail to contend with the Yankees and Red Sox.
Projected Finish: 3rd place

Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles spent most of the off-season accomplishing nothing; never a good move for a team coming off a 74-88 season with little help in the farm system. They did manage to nab the game's premier pitching coach, but it will likely be Home Sweet Fourth Place for Baltimore next season.
Starting Pitching
The O's will benefit from having Leo Mazzone on their pitching coach; but it's too much to expect even Mazzone to have a huge, immediate impact. There's not a whole lot to work with on the Baltimore staff. The best-case scenario would have Mazzone lowering the ERA by a half-run. But considering the O's posted a 4.56 ERA last season (9th in the AL), and allowed 580 walks (only Tampa Bay allowed more), it'll take more than Leo to create a contender.
Erik Bedard looked like the real thing last year before getting injured. He came back, posting a 5.01 ERA in his post-DL starts, making his presumed stardom questionable. The same could be said for Daniel Cabrera, who possesses great "stuff," but has yet to translate that into performance. He could use some help from Mazzone.
The O's did take advantage of the Mets in acquiring solid right-hander Kris Benson. Benson makes a bit of money, but he's reliably above-average, if not by much. But all the Orioles really gave up was iffy reliever Jorge Julio, so no harm no foul. Rodrigo Lopez is an innings-eater, but the O's hope it will be better-quality innings than last year (4.90 ERA, 118 K in 209.1 IP). There's not much after that, with Bruce Chen unlikely to reproduce a career year in 2005 (3.83 ERA).
The loss of B.J. Ryan hurts, obviously, but the O's might have a replacement in young Chris Ray. Ray is viewed as their closer of the future, although he has yet to be tested in the majors. So the future may not be 2006. After him, it's the dregs.
The Orioles acquired 1B Kevin Millar mainly as a clubhouse presence, but that and $5 will get you some Starbucks. If Millar doesn't produce above his 2005 levels (272/355/399 in Fenway), he won't be much help. Melvin Mora mans third, reliable on offense if forgettable on defense.
Middle Infield
Miguel Tejada is still one of the game's best players. This 26-year-old should shrug off a slightly down 2005 (304/349/515) and return to form. 2B Brian Roberts had an uber-career year in 2005 (314/387/515), but the Orioles hope it's just the sign of things to come for this 28-year-old. Expect something closer to his career rates (278/344/402), but still with good defense and speed.
The Orioles still suffer from an offensively barren outfield, a problem which isn't too hard to rectify in today's game. It's understandable that the O's can't get good pitching very easily, but good outfield help is available for the right price, which the O's do have the money to pay. So there's no excuse for a starting outfield of Jeff Conine, Jay Gibbons, and either Luis Matos or Corey Patterson.
The O's signed free agent catcher Ramon Hernandez, but may not be getting quite what they hoped. Hernandez still hits well for a catcher (262/325/418 in pitcher's parks), but his once-vaunted defense didn't look quite so valuable out in San Diego. It's also an odd move, since the O's already had a catcher (albeit a 35-year-old catcher) in Javy Lopez. This signing will shift Javy to 1B-DH, where his offense will be less valuable.
Other than the aforementioned Lopez, the O's don't have much on the bench at all. It's a pretty offensively dry team, a reversal of previous years, which will be especially troubling if Mazzone can't get the pitching staff turned around.
Jim Beattie took the rap as co-GM, being replaced with Jim Duquette, who will share duties with Mike Flanagan. But it's very difficult to tell how much any GM could accomplish under the ever-watchful eye of Peter Angelos. The Orioles have been one of the worse teams, over the past 10 years, in terms of signing high-cost/low-yield free agents. The days of Ripken are long over, and fans may be wondering if they can fire the owner. You'd get no argument from Bud Selig.
Projected Finish: 4th place

Tampa Bay Devil Rays
There is hope! New ownership and new management have sent the historically incompetent Vince Naimoli and Chuck LaMar packing. It's true, though, that the new executives may not be much better than their predecessors, but they surely to goodness can't be much worse. And with a passel of young talent on its way to the majors, there may just be a glimmer of hope after all.
Starting Pitching
Here's where the hope founders, as the Tampa Bay pitching is bloody awful. The 2005 squad finished 13th in the AL (of 14) with a 5.39 ERA, dead last in HR allowed (194) and dead last as well in walks allowed (AL-high 615, against just 949 Ks). Most of the top prospects in the organization are position players; the best pitching help is still in the low minors.
The good news is that the D-Rays do appear to have one good pitcher. 22-year-old Scott Kazmir was taken from the Mets for a song and showed great promise in his first full season. Despite allowing an AL-high 100 walks, Kazmir notched 174 K in 186 IP, allowing just 12 homers. It's good news for a franchise that has never had a very good pitcher, especially since the youngster is only going to get better.
Sorry, that's all the good news you get. The rotation will be filled out by marginal major-leaguers such as Mark Hendrickson and Seth McClung. Ex-Dodger prospect Edwin Jackson will likely get a shot, although he doesn't look nearly as promising as he did 2 years ago.
The D-Rays traded soon-to-be free agent Danys Baez and will likely hand the closer's job to Chad Orvella. The 25-year-old righty had a fine rookie year in 2005, and it's not like there's anyone better. The bullpen is a bit more reliable than the rotation, but that's not saying much.
The corner tandem of Travis Lee and Sean Burroughs may not hit their weight, but they're pretty good glove men. These two are stopgaps until someone better comes along; although Burroughs will be given a shot to recapture his status as a former top prospect.
Middle Infield
Better news here, as the D-Rays have talented and underappreciated Julio Lugo at shorstop. Lugo isn't going to rate up there with Tejada, Jeter, or Jhonny Peralta of Cleveland. But he's nearly as good as all three and only made $3.25 million last year (Jeter got $19.6 mil). That's $3.25 mil for good hitting (295/362/403), good fielding (5 FRAA), and 39/50 in steals. Why in the world did the Braves choose Edgar Renteria over this uber-bargain?
Second baseman Jorge Cantu . . . well, the good news is that he's got a ton of power. Cantu hit 28 HR and 40 doubles for a .497 slugging percentage, 3rd among AL 2B. But not only was his defense awful, he drew only 19 BB against 83 K for an unacceptable .311 OBP. It's possible that he can become a bit more disciplined, but he still just doesn't look like a second baseman. Is there anybody else on this team who can play the infield?
The Rays have an embarassment of riches in the outfield. LF Carl Crawford is another multi-talented player who gets far too much credit based simply on that fact. Crawford hits well (301/331/469), but not so well for a left fielder. He steals bases, too, but he's not worth the reams of great press he gets.
Speaking of overrated, there's center fielder Rocco Baldelli, who has already received a contract extension. Baldelli is a good center fielder, but he doesn't hit that well (285/326/425, which is right in line with what he hit in the minors). He's not a bad guy to have around, but the D-Rays are going to end up trading away better players just to make room for this guy, and I just don't think he's quite that special. Although it must be noted that, at age 24, he has a lot of developing yet to do.
The first guy to get traded away for Baldelli will likely be minor leaguer Joey Gathright. Gathright has gotten a lot of attention from other clubs, so the D-Rays will be trading somebody around here soon, most likely him. As a hitter, Gathright most resembles Luis Castillo, although to a lesser degree. He hits for a high average, steals bases, and draws a few walks, which makes him seem a lot more valuable than he probably is. He's a few months younger than Baldelli, for what that's worth. But I think teams have slightly overrated Gathright's hitting, which will only mean good things when the Rays trade him away.
Right field will go to Jonny Gomes, who made quite an impression with his rookie debut in 2005. Gomes doesn't get nearly as much hype as his colleagues, but he's quite a nice hitter. He's not worth much defensively and hits for a low average, but has a ton of power and draws his share of walks. He's just 25, so he should help round out a nice young outfield.
Honorable mention goes to super-prospect B.J. Upton. Upton is just 21 and is already hitting like a major leaguer at AAA (303/392/490 in '05). The problem is that Upton is a shortstop -- a really bad one. Most teams would shift him to center field, but God knows the Rays have enough center fielders as it is. The Rays have committed themselves to the idea that Upton is a shortstop, even hiring Ozzie Smith to work with him.
While it's a nice effort, it's probably for naught. While Ozzie could certainly make B.J. more passable, he's not going to turn water into wine. The best thing would be to shift B.J. somewhere else defensively (he's a far sight better than that stiff Baldelli) and get his bat in the lineup for the 6 years they control him. Upton has gotten some bad press as an attitude problem, and while that may be true, it might just be the fact that he's stuck in the minors playing for the worst franchise in baseball at a position he sucks at. I'd complain, too.
Yet another super-prospect outfielder is Delmon Young. Young played quite well at A and AA ball, but struggled at AAA last season. This isn't really bad news, seeing as how he's just 20 years old. Young won't be ready for another year or so, but he's another good player slowly inching his way into the outfield.
Toby Hall is what the Rays already have, so he's what they'll settle for. Catchers are far too expensive.
Aubrey Huff will be the team's DH. Huff used to be the franchise's best young hitter, but his stock has taken a dive recently, thanks mainly to his poor defense and his truly rough 2005 (261/321/428). But for 3 straight years, from 2002-2004, Huff hit roughly 300/360/500, and since he's still just 29, I'd like to be the team to trade for him while his stock is low and see him (likely) hit closer to his career numbers. Many teams have enquired, but the Rays' asking price has been too high. I'm not sure why, since they won't control him for much longer.
The bench is about what you'd expect from the defending AL East Last-Placers.
Really, they can't be any worse than the Naimoli/LaMar chamber of horrors. New ownership made all the right moves upon purchasing the team, distancing themselves from the former owners and lowering the average ticket price, along with throwing open the garages and becoming the only MLB team to offer free parking. But talk is cheap, and the proof will be in two or three years when we see what these executives (and new manager Joe Maddon) do with all these good young players they've been handed.
Projected Finish: 5th place

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