Tuesday, March 17, 2009

2009 AL East Preview

The time had come for a change in Yankee-ville, and the Bronx Bombers were more than ready to seize the day. They started out by signing ace starter CC Sabathia (7 yrs., $161 MM) and strikeout master A.J. Burnett (5 yrs., $82.5 MM). And to bolster their offense, they brought in 28-year-old Mark Teixeira (8 yrs., $180 MM) to play first. The changes gave the Yankees a huge boost and put the spotlight on them as the team to beat in the AL East.
But the story isn't that simple. The Rays are still there, and while they may be destined to take a step back from the 2008 brilliance, that's no guarantee. The Red Sox spent the off-season adding spare parts like Josh Bard, John Smoltz and Ramon Ramirez, but they still feel confident that their core producers can compete with anyone, rich or poor.
It's tough to choose a winner out of three significant contenders. But here's how I see it happening ...

2009 Prediction
1st — New York Yankees
2nd — Boston Red Sox
3rd — Tampa Bay Rays
4th — Toronto Blue Jays
5th — Baltimore Orioles

New York Yankees
Not only have the Yankees added a significant upgrade at three positions (two starters and a first baseman), they also have a lot of room for improvement from within.
The most important improvement is an outfield with
a great deal of depth, which should allow manager Joe Girardi to platoon or play match-ups as he sees fit. Johnny Damon, coming off a fine offensive year, should get the start in left field. Right field will likely be split between Xavier Nady and Nick Swisher. Swisher looks to be the super-sub, and is well-qualified offensively. He should bounce back from a down year even as Nady fades following a career year. Center field is still an open question and will likely be the team's biggest weakness. The Yankees are hoping that Brett Gardner is ready, mainly because they really, really want him to be ready. On the plus side, the team does have guys like Damon and Swisher who can handle center if the Gardner/Melky Cabrera experiment fails dramatically.
The Yanks can also expect a pretty big bounceback from their middle infield. Derek Jeter had a disappointing 2008; even a modest increase to the Jeter of old would be a big help. Second baseman Robinson Cano had an even tougher time than Jeter, hitting .271 with a woeful .305 OBP despite showing some power. Cano doesn't have Jeter's track record, so it's hard to say how much he will be able to improve in '09. If he doesn't show signs of improvement, he could see his time at second base come to an abrupt end.

A lot has been said about the team's starting rotation (and rightfully so), it's worth pointing out what good work Girardi got out of the team's bullpen in 2008. Despite the rough circumstances, the bullpen overachieved. This marked a change from recent Yankee teams, and it's no coincidence. In the past, the Yanks have tried to patch up their middle relief with expensive and risky free agents. And they either blew up (Kyle Farnsworth) or just got pushed to the limit by former manager Joe Torre (Tom Gordon, Scott Proctor), leaving them out of gas in October.
This time, the Yankees looked for creative ways to acquire undervalued, useful players. This meant giving a lot of work to Jose Veras and Edwar Ramirez, which turned out fine for the team. Neither man is a household name, but they're a lot better than the big names, not to mention much cheaper.
If I had to pick one gaping hole on the team, it would be catcher. This isn't meant as an insult to Jorge Posada, a borderline Hall-of-Famer who hits as well as any catcher when he's healthy. The problem is that he wasn't healthy in 2008, and the Yankees have done an abysmal job of picking backup catchers over the years. This meant that when Posada went down, the Yankees went from hero-to-zero behind the plate.
Jose Molina was left to pick up the slack. Molina is a defensive whiz, which almost makes up for the fact that the man couldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat. He'll be 34 next year and is a career .237/.276/.339 hitter (slash stats indicate "batting average /on-base percentage/ slugging percentage"). Nobody knows just how many games they're going to get out of Posada in 2009, and when you know that in advance, you need to find a better insurance policy than Molina.
The Yankees enter 2009 as favorites to win the AL East, although it's no guarantee. The starting rotation relies a lot on A.J. Burnett, who's no kind of iron man, and Andy Pettitte, who will be 37 this year. The offense is improved with the addition of Teixeira, but it's still an old group that's not strong on defense. A lot of things would have to go wrong for the 2009 Yankees to miss the playoffs, but then a lot of people said that about the 2008 Yankees. Sometimes you just can't spend your way out of a problem.
Not that they won't stop trying.

The Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox have the potential to pass the Yankees and finish first in the division. Their offense may get even better, if David Ortiz returns to form and Jed Lowrie succeeds at shortstop. And their pitching staff is packed with numerous insurance policies, most notably some extremely talented young pitchers (Clay Buchholz, Michael Bowden) who have some tremendous upside. And if somebody gets injured or loses their edge, the Sox can replace them with Brad Penny, John Smoltz, or Justin Masterson and not lose much in the exchange. Few teams can afford to carry eight or nine starters, but the Red Sox do, and as unpredictable as pitchers are, it pays off.

Problems in the bullpen? The Sox are very good at patching bullpen problems; they picked up an underrated late-innings arm in Ramon Ramirez and even signed Takashi Saito as an insurance policy. Saito's injury problems will limit his availability, but when you look at how good he was as the Dodgers' closer, it's worth rolling the dice on him.
All of this sounds wonderful. But while the Red Sox have (arguably) the best upside in the AL East, they've got a pretty scary downside, too. There are a lot of "ifs" surrounding this team, and even if they have given themselves a ridiculous amount of redundancy in the pitching department, it won't be worth much if their big hitters don't take a step forward in 2009.
It's great that Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia both contended for the MVP last year, but it means that both of them (especially Youkilis) will probably take a step back down to earth in 2009. The outfield is a problem, as only Jason Bay can be counted on for strong, consistent production. Right fielder J.D. Drew is strong but maddeningly inconsistent. He's actually been one of the team's best hitters since signing his free agent deal; the problem is that he hasn't been around all that much to enjoy it. Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury is the opposite: durable and reliable as ever, but just not all that good. Ellsbury isn't bad, by any means, but his offense hasn't come along like people expected. The Sox are hoping that he'll do better this year than he did in 2008, when he hit an empty .280, a poor offensive performance only slightly offset by a 50/61 performance in steals. It should be noted, though, that the Sox' pick-up of Rocco Baldelli as a fourth outfielder gives them a pretty good insurance policy.
The catching situation is just as wretched as it was last year. The Sox ended up keeping Jason Varitek at discount prices, but it's hard to call that much of a victory when you consider where Tek's offense is now. I know he's supposed to be the Magical Genie of making his pitchers better; I just haven't seen any proof that his magical effect outweighs the damage he does at the plate.
If I had to guess how many wins the Sox would manage in 2009, I could guess anything from 75 to 95, just based on how the wind blows and which way the tides of offense and defense turn for them. They have every chance of winning the division. But it's just as likely that they finish 3rd, maybe even 4th. If nothing else, it will certainly be exciting to see which way it goes.

The Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays have the satisfaction of entering 2009 as postseason contenders with none of the mammoth expectations faced by the Yankees and Red Sox. The good thing about being overachievers is that everyone expects you to fail, or at least to return to normal. If the Rays can manage just 90 wins on their payroll, they can call their season a success. Especially if they can do it while bringing along more young stars like David Price and Wade Davis.
The Rays' offense during the 2008 regular season wasn't nearly as good as it looked in the postseason, with B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria playing an in-game version of home run derby. The team finished 9th in the AL in runs scored, which isn't very encouraging at first. But there are several areas where the Rays should see strong improvement this year. The first is with Upton, who hit a poor .273/.383/.401 during the season, then went crazy and hit .321/.394/.786 in the ALCS. A .786 slugging percentage may not be a reasonable goal, but the truth is that the guy you saw in the postseason is the B.J. Upton most likely to lead the team in 2009.
Two other positions primed to improve are left field and DH. Carl Crawford returns as the Rays' left fielder, but after a season that he himself considered a big disappointment. Crawford doesn't have a whole lot of tools, but he's very good at getting on base and then stealing them. So when your batting average drops to .273 and your OBP is .319, you've pretty much failed at your basic goal. Crawford is still very young (he'll just be 27 this year) and should easily regain his old form.
At DH, the Rays picked up free agent Pat Burrell for 2 years and $16 million. Burrell was spurned by the Phillies, who decided to sign an older, more expensive left fielder in Raul Ibanez. This was good news for the Rays, who were able to get the better, younger player at a more affordable price. The move to DH is great for Burrell, who is no asset in the field. He should be far more durable than last year's DH Cliff Floyd and is coming off a year where he hit .250/.367/.507.
As far as pitching goes, the Rays have a killer starting rotation that costs them about as much as a month of Alex Rodriguez. Ace Scott Kazmir is hampered by pitch-count issues that limit his endurance, but he's got strong support from the rest of the starting staff and from the bullpen. The Rays' depth of strong, young starters was put on display in the postseason, and it wasn't a mirage. If they can keep Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine, and (fingers crossed) David Price healthy and intact, their starting rotation will be fabulous. Even more important, it's very young and very cheap, a combination that enables them to pursue mid-level free agents such as Burrell.

My two biggest concerns for the Rays are the two places where they saw the most improvement in 2008: the bullpen and the defense. Relief pitching is a really funny thing, and one year's star bullpen can look pretty shabby the next (see: 2005 White Sox, 2006 Cardinals). The Rays are hampered by their lack of a legit closer; Troy Percival is a good arm to have, but they're fooling themselves if they think he's going to do much better than he did last year. This is an even bigger problem in a division where your top two competitors have Mariano Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon closing out games.
As for the defense, the 2008 Rays saw a defensive improvement unheralded in baseball history. Their 2007 defense was among the worst in modern baseball history. The 2008 club, on the other hand, led the league in Defensive Efficiency (DER)*. The truth is somewhere in the middle, although the team has made tangible improvements in defense. I just don't expect them all to carry over to 2009.* — For more info on what DER is and why it's the best tool to measure fielding, click
It's unfortunate that the Rays are such long shots; they're stuck in a division where you have to keep moving forward just to stay in the same place. The Rays won 97 games a year ago, but without significant improvements — and with the Yankees speeding by them — they're a tough bet to make the postseason. Never the less, the simple fact that they've made it this far on such a small payroll is a testament to the new competitive balance and the power of smart baseball management. And it must really piss off Yankees fans.

The Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays had almost everything go right last year. Since then, almost everything has gone wrong.
The Jays had an amazing starting rotation, led by ace Roy "Doc" Halladay. He was backed up by strikeout leader A.J. Burnett, Jesse Litsch, Shaun Marcum, and Dustin McGowan. One year later, Burnett is gone to free agency, Shaun Marcum is out for the season following Tommy John surgery, and Marcum isn't scheduled to return from the DL until May. The Jays do have some good pitchers (David Purcey) to fill the gaps, but you just can't lose a huge chunk of your starting rotation like that and expect it to be just as good as it was. The 2008 Jays were great at preventing runs; their rotation was great, their bullpen was solid and their defense was second only to the Rays. 2008 really was the best this team could do. So don't count on a repeat in 2009.

The Jays could pick up the slack with their offense. Is there any chance that the Jays will score more runs to compensate for the losses to their pitching staff? It's very doubtful. Years of conservative drafting have left the team without a true impact player, a handful of really useful players, and several dozen utility guys.
Vernon Wells was supposed to be the cornerstone of their offense when they signed him to a big seven-year, $126 million contract extension after the 2006 season. They were hoping that Wells, whose offense had gone up and down, could finally step up and be the all-around star they were hoping for.
That hasn't happened yet. Wells had a dreadful year in 2007 (.245/.304/.402) although he bounced back with a pretty good line in 2008 (.300/.343/.496) despite playing in only 108 games. The lesson to learn from this is that it's a bad idea to pay a good player like a great player and just hope that he changes.
Well, there's always Alex Rios. He was supposed to be an impact player, but he's not there yet. He has good power and hits for a decent average, but he's often humbled by the strike zone. And if you're going to go through life with a career .338 on-base percentage, you just have to hit more home runs than this (Rios' career high is 24 in 2007; it's the only time he's topped 20). Now Rios does turn 29 this year, and I guess there's still a chance that he can refine his raw skills. But remember what I said about hoping a good player becomes a great one.
The Jays do have legitimate offensive stars and power threats in homegrown mashers Adam Lind and Travis Snider. But while both should turn out to be good hitters, they probably won't be great hitters, and both men are defensively limited to the outfield corners or DH.
Years of poor drafting and a conservative approach to player acquisition left the Jays with a good team that had little or no chance of becoming great. And even though the team is trying a more aggressive to drafting and spending more money, it may be too late for the roster as it is now. The Jays hit their peak in 2008, which is great unless you have to stick around and watch the inevitable fall.

The Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles are, unfortunately, one of the last sad-sack teams in baseball. Despite a mid-90s peak that saw the club make the postseason in back-to-back years (1996-7), the team hasn't won 80 games in eleven seasons. But fear not, Oriole fans, there is hope.

I can't say that everything has changed in Baltimore, but there are a lot of very promising signs. Andy MacPhail has come in to run the team and not only seems to be making good progress in building a solid foundation, but he appears to have the support of owner Peter Angelos, which is no small feat. MacPhail hasn't stopped bringing in free agents, but he's tried to make them at least moderately useful investments (no more Jay Paytons).
More importantly, the club is starting to see a very good return from their farm system. They've got talent the likes of which they haven't seen since Earl Weaver was manager. The club graduated Nick Markakis to the majors and saw him blossom into a great hitter and one of the most promising youngsters in the game. They recently signed him to a contract extension to keep him around Baltimore for a little longer.
Even more impressive is the #1 prospect in all of baseball, catcher Matt Wieters. Wieters spent 2008 making the minor leagues
his bitch at the tender age of 22. It doesn't look like he's going to start the year in the majors, but he'll be behind the plate in Camden Yards before Memorial Day, most likely. His offensive potential is off the charts, and he is one of the biggest reasons for optimism for Oriole fans looking ahead.
MacPhail has also been willing to trade away excess talent to add depth to the farm system. He traded Miguel Tejada to Houston and while he didn't get back a huge return, he was able to rid himself of Tejada's contract and add pitching depth to the big-league roster by acquiring "Hey, Hey, Hey It's" Matt Albers, Troy Patton and reliever Dennis Sarfate. He traded ace Erik Bedard to Seattle in 2008 in exchange for the Mariners' top prospect, center fielder Adam Jones. Jones is still raw and has yet to break out at the major league level, but it's still exciting to picture a Baltimore outfield patrolled by Jones and Markakis.
The Orioles' biggest problem is pitching. In 2008, their starting rotation was Jeremy Guthrie and his Merry Band of Misfits. No team in baseball had worse depth in the starting rotation than Baltimore. But there's great news here, too, as the Orioles have several promising pitchers on their way to the majors. Chris Tillman could be a true ace; he'll be starting the season in Triple-A, but should pop up to the majors sometime in '09. Young Brian doesn't have the stuff that Tillman has, but he's young, has a short path to the majors, and should stick when he gets there. The club also has an enviable collection of young arms who may not end up as stars, but will add much-needed depth to the back of the rotation.

It's highly unlikely that the Orioles will contend in 2009. Most of their hope is still seasoning in the minors. But in the years to come, they should have a core of young talent able to return them to the postseason.

I'd give you 4-1 odds that the Wild Card comes out of the AL East this year, as no other division in the league has two teams capable of winning 95 games, let alone three. This is, without a doubt, the best division in baseball and it will be a thrill to watch the season unfold.

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