Monday, February 25, 2008

AL East Preview

Baltimore Orioles
2007 W-L Record:
2007 pW-pL Record: 71-91
Strengths: Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, Brian Roberts**-- if they don't trade him
Weaknesses: Pitching, Pitching, Pitching ... and the rest of the offense
Biggest Change from '07: Bye-Bye Bedard
One Reason:
One reason the Orioles will win in '07 is an act of God.

One reason the Orioles will lose in '07 is . . . just one? In 2007, only the Devil Rays (5.83) allowed more runs than the Orioles (5.36). The Devil Rays are getting better, or at any rate have an embarassment of riches in young pitching prospects. The Orioles, on the other hand, are at the bottom of the heap when it comes to young pitchers. Their best young hurler, 21-year-old Troy Patton, was just diagnosed with an injury that may be a labrum tear. It's hard to project the Orioles to manage even an adequate pitching staff in the next 3-5 years without either big luck or a major overhaul.
If you project the Orioles' lineup in 3-5 years, things don't look too bad at all. Baseball America lists the clubs #1 prospect as catcher Matt Wieters, who does look like a future star. Their starting outfield would include potential superstar Adam Jones and future All-Star Nick Markakis. They would field prospects Billy Rowell and Brandon Snyder at the infield corners, and if they can hold onto Brian Roberts, would actually have an above-average offense. That's assuming, of course, that all the prospects develop into everyday players (some are still a distant projection) and they don't make silly mistakes like signing bottom-level free agents like Jay Payton and Aubrey Huff to screw things up . . . The O's have the money to compete on the free agent market, which is good news, except that for nearly ten years they've all but squandered it on either high-profile mistakes (Javy Lopez, Danys Baez), blow-outs (Albert Belle), or overpaid role-players (the above-mentioned Huff and Payton, as well as middle relievers Baez, Chad Bradford and Jamie Walker). The good news here is that the new man in charge (after Peter Angelos, of course), Andy MacPhail, has made none of those mistakes this offseason. You could argue about the return he got in trading away Miguel Tejada or Erik Bedard, but in the scheme of things, the Orioles really should be in sell mode, five or six years after the fact. MacPhail is the first guy in years to energetically pursue a rebuilding program and admit that the club can't compete in the near-term. That said, MacPhail's tenure is young yet, and Baltimore faces as steep an uphill climb as any team in the league ... The departure of Leo Mazzone left an unfortunate blot on what was once an outstanding career. You can't blame everything on Mazzone, but it's also hard to make an argument that he was much of a help ... Can we just give up on Daniel Cabrera, already? He'll be 27 next year; rub that lamp all you want, but I doubt there's a genie in there ... Few moves were as harmful to the team's long-term prospects as the decision to give a contract extension to Melvin Mora. Mora turns 36 next year and has never been a defensive asset. And his offense is going, too -- Mora played just 126 games last year and hit 274/341/418, which was actually an improvement over his 2006 line of 274/342/391. Only a glove wizard could hold down a job at third base in the AL hitting like that, and Mora is no wizard. He's only going to get oldder and (hopefully) end up as a bench player/pinch hitter making over $8 million dollars the next two years, plus a 2010 option to buy out. The Mora demands were conducted in public, and the team gave in to a player who's not even good enough to start any more. We can take it as good news that the previous front office is gone, but will things ever really change with Angelos still around? We may not find out for quite a while ... The loss of Bedard does mean we'll get to see more of "Hey, Hey, Hey, It's" Matt Albers. And no, I won't rest until that nickname sticks.

Boston Red Sox
2007 W-L Record: 96-66
2007 pW-pL Record: 101-61
Strengths: Just about everything
Weaknesses: Middle relief (maybe)
Biggest Change from '07: A healthy Manny; Injured Schilling
One Reason:
One reason the Red Sox will win in '07 is that they won the World Series last year and have pretty much everyone back and ready. What else do you need?
One reason the Red Sox will lose in '07 is that they're still in a strong division, and competition for the Wild Card will be just as stiff as it was last year.

Barring a minor miracle, it looks like the potential AL playoff field is Boston-New York-Cleveland-Detroit-Los Angeles. Four will go to October, one will not. And if I had to bet on one as a sure thing, I just might take Boston, even considering that the Angels have a much easier division. Potential "surprises" are pretty much confined to the Blue Jays and maybe the Mariners, unless the Devil Rays hire Gil Hodges as their manager ... David Ortiz was "injured" last year, playing in 149 games. The "injury" resulted in a career-high batting average (.332) and OBP (.445), with a SLG (.621) the second-highest of his career. The press thought Ortiz was slumping because he hit "just "35 homers, but he also socked 52 doubles and drew 111 walks. Some stats list 2007 as the best of his career. Would that we were all so "injured" ... Manny Ramirez was also "injured," hitting just 296/388/493 with 20 HR. Manny will be 36 next year, but don't be at all surprised if Manny still has some elite hitting left in him ... The Sox had to over-pay Mike Lowell to get him back. Lowell did have a career year in '07 (324/378/501), but even if he's just an All-Star in '08, it was worth the money considering the other third base options available. ... The Sox face an even tougher decision with Jason Varitek, who will be a free agent after this season. Catching is always at a premium, but if I were the Sox, I wouldn't take the gamble. Varitek may be a good game-caller, but he's not as ageless as Jorge Posada. If the Sox thought they would regret this contract (which extends through his age-36 season this year), just wait till they sign another one. But again, they may just bite the bullet and deal with the familiar ... I'd expect a bounceback from Julio Lugo, who was dreadful last year. But if it's not a big enough bounceback, Lugo could be out of town. The club wasn't patient with Edgar Renteria, the last free agent shortstop they tried, and Renteria didn't have a prospect like Jed Lowrie pushing him ... The injury to Curt Schilling certainly hurts the team, but this is where the wisdom of carrying six or seven starters is vindicated. Schilling is replaced by Clay Buchholz, who won't pitch 200 innings, but shouldn't be significant worse than Schilling and, all told, might have a better season than Schilling would have at age 41 ... I'm not hanging my hat on the "Josh Beckett as God" bandwagon, but even if he slips, there's plenty of room to make it up.

New York Yankees
2007 W-L Record:
2007 pW-pL Record: 97-65
Strengths: The Offense ... boy, it gets tiresome writing that year after year
Weaknesses: First base, musical chairs in the outfield, heavy reliance on young pitching
Biggest Change from '07: Starting rotation is one year older, for better and worse
One Reason:
One reason the Yankees will win in '08 is that they've got the offense to contend with just an adequate pitching staff, and odds are they'll have much more than that. It's hard to live up to sainthood, but if anybody can, it's Joba Chamberlain.
One reason the Yankees will lose in '08 is that none of their young pitching comes without caveats. Chamberlain is slated to start in the bullpen in order to keep his workload down and ease him into the rotation. Health has been an issue for Phil Hughes. Strikeouts are always an issue for Chien-Ming Wang. And the veteran starters are Mike Mussina, fully showing his age at 39, or an increasingly brittle (and HGH-less) Andy Pettitte.

I'm not worried about HGH, but Pettitte really is older and less of a reliably commodity than people think. He'll be 36 next season, and since missing most of 2004 with Houston, he had one great season (2005) and two good ones ('06 and '07). Pettitte's HR allowed dropped when he moved back to New York last year (from 27 to 16), but worryingly, so did his strikeouts, from 178 to 141, despite pitching 1 inning more. Most every report I read or hear about the Yankees refers to Pettitte as the "sure thing" or "reliable" part of the Yankee rotation, but I'm not as sure about that. And even if he is reliable, he's 4.15-4.30 ERA reliable with maybe 150 strikeouts, which is good, but not the safety net some people think he is ... I applaud the club for its increasing conservatism when it comes to giving up prospects and signing expensive, old free agents, but really, couldn't we do something better at first base? You have to get Jason Giambi's bat in the lineup, and while I would tolerate his defense at first, I don't have to watch the man every day or make a living throwing baseballs at him ... The Yankees should be (and probably are) planning for the future of their offense. Seven of their nine projected spots in the lineup will be at least 32 years old next year, and six of them will be at least 34. It's great to have Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera, but who else, besides A-Rod and Jeter, will still be productive in 3-5 years? On the plus side, the team will have a lot of money coming off the books in the years to come and should be less likely to overpay for the next Johnny Damon (or, I hate to say it, Mike Mussina) ... Is it some sort of team policy to employ terrible backup catchers? Even among that light-hitting group, Jose Molina is depressing (and don't forget John Flaherty, Sal Fasano, et al). Or maybe it just shows how good they've got it with Posada on the team ... How 'bout that Kei Igawa? ... The day will come when Mariano Rivera stops being effective. No, really -- I swear.

Tampa Bay Rays
2007 W-L Record: 66-96
2007 pW-pL Record: 67-95
Strengths: More young talent than any club in the past ten years
Weaknesses: Pitching and defense
Biggest Change from '07: Hello, Matt Garza ... and maybe Jeff Niemann... or David Price ...
One Reason:
One reason the Rays will win in '08 is that they've got a huge load of young prospects and finally, finally some of them can pitch.
One reason the Rays will lose in '08 is that they've got a looooong way to go with that team pitching and defense.

The Rays have spent the past couple years trying to elevate their franchise from the depths of hell, so it's fitting that they should finally drop the "devil" from their name ... Third baseman Evan Longoria, who should start the season at third, is something of a mystery; scouts aren't sure if he's the best prospect in baseball or just on his team ... Longoria gives a giant boost to the lineup, but there's still some worry about the supporting characters. Akinori Iwamura ran hot and cold last season; he could be a strong second baseman or he could be a bust. And while Carlos Pena certainly earned his Comeback Player of the Year award, I just can't in good faith predict a repeat season of 282/411/627. But he might come close. The two spots of most concern are at catcher and shortstop. Shortstop isn't such a big deal; Jason Bartlett can't really hit, but he's a strong glove on a team that desperately needed one. And the club still has Reid Brignac in the system. Catcher is more of a worry, as the team is stuck hoping 24-year-old Dioner Navarro finally puts it all together ... Scott Kazmir is a good #1 and James Shields is a good #2, but this rotation will really get interesting when you've got Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine, David Price, and Jeff Niemann fighting for the other spots ... The team committed 2 years and $8 million to Troy Percival, which isn't such a good long-term plan, but you can forgive the Rays for being desperate for bullpen help. But an improved starting rotation will take a lot of the pressure off ... Adding Jason Bartlett and Evan Longoria should help what was a historically bad defense in 2007, but there's still work to be done. B.J. Upton should be a better fit in center, and whatever's left of Rocco Baldelli should be able to handle right field whenever he's upright ... Another savvy 1-year contract of the offseason was the Rays' pickup of Cliff Floyd, who is still an effective hitter and good platoon partner and also just insurance against Rocco Baldelli going down.

Toronto Blue Jays
2007 W-L Record: 83-79
2007 pW-pL Record: 87-75
Strengths: Roy Halladay, Young Pitching
Weaknesses: Lineup with a ton of "Ifs"
Biggest Change from '07: Glaus out, Rolen in
One Reason:
One reason the Blue Jays will win in '08 is that their starting rotation could really surprise. Behind Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett (who could opt out and enter the free agent market after this year) are Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum, and Casey Janssen.
One reason the Blue Jays will lose in '08 is that their lineup asks a lot to be taken seriously. There's no guarantee that David Eckstein will be worth a darn, no evidence that Scott Rolen will stay healthy (and productive) or that Vernon Wells will ever have another MVP year or if Frank Thomas will finally break down. If you're a team without an elite offensive player you need your offense to work with all parts moving, and if you lose just one or two, you're lost.

The Jays are hoping that a change of scenery (and manager) will help Scott Rolen. It's a choice between Rolen's inconsistent brilliance or Glaus' reliable production. Personally, I prefer the latter, especially when the latter is much cheaper ... Maybe this is the year that everyone gets over their man-crush on David Eckstein ... Should I really be that excited by Alex Rios? ... The Jays' J.P. Ricciardi stuck to the old ways long after mentor Billy Beane had moved on. But lately, the team has been putting more of a stress on combining pitching with defense. If only they could get offense, or get more creative at the draft board ... Can everyone please remember B.J. Ryan and Keith Foulke when teams offer the moon to even the best of closers? ... The sad thing is that now the Red Sox and Yankees aren't just out-spending the Jays, they're out-developing and outsmarting them. The division is a problem, but it's also a scapegoat for a franchise whose postseason drought is the third-longest in the AL.

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