Taking Stock of the AL East

spt-121008-yanks-ichiro-scores.nbcsports-story-612The sharks are circling.

For the better part of the last two decades the American League East has been dominated by the big fish, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Recently the Tampa Bay Rays have been able to break into that triumvirate to steal a couple of playoff births and division titles. Last season brought more parity and more disturbance to the big budget empires with the Baltimore Orioles surprise run to 94 wins and a Wild Card spot, leaving only the Toronto Blue Jays out in the cold.

But this offseason, the established order in the AL East may finally be fully overthrown. The Yankees are old, injured, and cutting payroll back to a modest $189 million. The Red Sox are coming off their worst season since 1981 and they aren’t signing any of the big name players either, instead opting for character guys on short-term deals. Toronto (yes, Toronto) is ramping up payroll and making franchise-altering trades to add a staff full of pitchers, one that includes 2012 NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. Tampa Bay is doing their usual thing, trading for young, unproven talent while rebuilding on the cheap. And Baltimore, well, they’ve stood pat thus far.

The sharks are circling. From the looks of it, everybody has a shot in the AL East. No other division in baseball can say that. So why don’t we take an early peak at the division race, position by position, to see where things stand?

Catcher

  1. Baltimore Orioles – Matt Wieters
  2. Boston Red Sox – Jared Saltalamacchia, David Ross
  3. Toronto Blue Jays – JP Arencibia, Josh Thole
  4. Tampa Bay Rays – Jose Molina, Robinson Chirnos, Jose Lobaton
  5. New York Yankees – Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart, Austin Romine

Matt Wieters is a terrific catcher, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Everything after hism on this list is just a big pile of yuck. The catcher position seems to be the soft spot for just about every AL East team. Out of the bottom four teams, I think the Saltalamacchia-Ross platoon has the potential to do some good things on offense, but they’re going to struggle to be even adequate on defense. Mike Napoli will probably do a bit of spot catching for Boston as well, although there is some sort of hang-up with his contract at this point. Napoli will also probably see a majority of his playing time come at first base. New York and Tampa Bay are probably still in the market for a catcher.

First Base

  1. New York Yankees – Mark Teixeira
  2. Toronto Blue Jays – Edwin Encarnacion
  3. Baltimore Orioles – Chris Davis
  4. Boston Red Sox – Mike Napoli
  5. Tampa Bay Rays – James Loney

The race at the top is extremely close between Teixeira, Davis, and Encarnacion. The latter had the best season of the three in 2012, but I’m not quite ready to hand the title over to Encarnacion just yet. He’s had exactly one good season in his 8 year career, which makes me a little wary, and his defense (something Teixeira excels at) is among the worst in baseball at any position. Davis is the youngest of the three, and probably the player you would most want going forward, but he has some red flags. The good: He crushed 33 homers last year and can play multiple positions well. The bad: He struck out 169 times while only walking 37 a year ago.

Second Base

  1. New York Yankees – Robinson Cano
  2. Tampa Bay Rays – Ben Zobrist
  3. Boston Red Sox – Dustin Pedroia
  4. Toronto Blue Jays – Maicer Izturis, Emilio Bonifacio
  5. Baltimore Orioles – Ryan Flaherty, Brian Roberts, Alexi Casilla

This one’s easy. Cano’s one of the 5 best players in baseball hands down. I’d also like to take a moment to appreciate Ben Zobrist. He’s the best kept secret in baseball. Zobrist can play shortstop, 2nd base, right field, and 1st base, all with flair while hitting 20 homers and 90 times a year. The rest of the teams are solid at 2nd base as well.

Third Base

  1. Tampa Bay Rays – Evan Longoria
  2. Toronto Blue Jays – Brett Lawrie
  3. Baltimore Orioles – Manny Machado
  4. New York Yankees – Kevin Youkilis, Alex Rodriguez
  5. Boston Red Sox – Will Middlebrooks

There is a ton of young talent in the AL East at 3rd base. Evan Longoria has already developed into a star with both the bat and the glove. Brett Lawrie is among the most athletic players in baseball at 3rd base, although he needs to show more patience at the plate. Manny Machado was brilliant in 51 games as a rookie and will be 20 years old next season. He’s got future All-Star written all over him, and Boston’s Will Middlebrooks has big power, although he’s a long way from being a finished product. His defense is very suspect, but oh man, was he built to hit 20 homers a year over the Green Monster.

Shortstop

Here’s where things get tricky, because the best shortstop in the division, Derek Jeter, is currently rehabbing from a gruesome broken leg suffered in the ALCS against Detroit. If he’s healthy at the start of the year, and I mean truly healthy, here’s how things look

  1. New York Yankees – Derek Jeter
  2. Toronto Blue Jays – Jose Reyes
  3. Baltimore Orioles – JJ Hardy
  4. Tampa Bay Rays – Yunel Escobar
  5. Boston Red Sox – Stephen Drew, Jose Iglesias

If Jeter isn’t healthy then the Yankees will instead opt for Eduardo Nunez, who’s terrifically fast and great at getting on base. He’s also terrifically erratic in the field and would probably lead the Majors in errors if he were given enough playing time. I’d rank him about even with the Red Sox mix, which is a huge drop-off in talent. As for the rest of the division, Jose Reyes and his speed should enjoy the turf in Toronto, while Yunel Escobar and his defense should fit right in with Maddon’s shifty Rays.

Outfield

  1. New York Yankees – Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, Ichiro, Chris Dickerson
  2. Toronto Blue Jays – Melky Cabrera, Colby Rasmus, Jose Bautista, Rajai Davis
  3. Baltimore Orioles – Nolan Reimold, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Nate McLouth
  4. Boston Red Sox – Jonny Gomes, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shane Victorino, Ryan Kalish
  5. Tampa Bay Rays – Desmond Jennings, Sam Fuld, Matt Joyce, Brandon Guyer, Wil Myers

This is a very, very good collection of outfield units. The Yankees are going to eat up just about everything hit their way. Gardner and Ichiro should both swipe 30 or more bags next year as well, and Curtis Granderson is a legitimate 40 homer threat. Toronto has plenty of outfield depth, and they could end up having the best unit if Bautista comes back with a vengeance and if Melky shows that he’s no steroid-fueled fluke. I’m also not sold on Boston’s outfield. Gomes has no ability to hit right-handed pitching, Victorino’s in decline big-time, and Ellsbury is missing every other year. Tampa Bay will also immediately improve the moment the decide to call Wil Myers up to the big league roster, which should occur sometime in the middle of May.

There is also a very good chance that a couple of these franchises pick up a veteran outfielder/DH type as an insurance policy, so stay tuned.

Starting Pitching – Top 3 ‘s

  1. Tampa Bay Rays – David Price, Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson
  2. New York Yankees – CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte
  3. Toronto Blue Jays – R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle
  4. Boston Red Sox – Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Ryan Dempster
  5. Baltimore Orioles – Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Tillman

There’s a pretty large gulf between the top 3 staffs in the AL East and everybody else. Tampa Bay’s staff definitely took a hit when they traded away James Shields, but the franchise should be better in the long run for making the deal. Toronto’s improvements have also made a big difference in their standing. Before the offseason began, the Jays’ starting staff ranked among the worst in baseball. With Dickey, Johnson, and Buehrle in tow, they now have a shot at making the playoffs.

Starting Pitching – Everybody Else

With so many injuries occurring on the mound these days, it’s always wise to have a deep stable of starting pitchers to call on. That means that a smart team doesn’t just plan to have 5 decent options, but rather 6 or 7. Here’s my rankings of each team’s bottom of the rotation options:

  1. Tampa Bay Rays – Alex Cobb, Jeff Niemann, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi
  2. New York Yankees – Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova, David Phelps, Michael Pineda
  3. Baltimore Orioles – Mike Gonzalez, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton
  4. Toronto Blue Jays – Brandon Morrow, Rickey Romero, J.A. Happ
  5. Boston Red Sox – Felix Doubrant, John Lackey, Franklin Morales

The top three teams on the list each have a plethora of mid-rotation types to choose from. Tampa Bay will probably have an open competition in Spring Training for the last 2 starting spots, while New York will probably go with Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova. If the Yankees are smart they could also have a potential Kris Medlen-type situation on their hands as well with Michael Pineda coming back sometime during the summer months. Baltimore seems to have a bushel of #3 or #4 but they lack a true ace, while Boston should look for more starting options on the free agent market, because John Lackey just won’t cut it.

 

As you can see, the race is very, very close and that’s before taking bullpens, managers, and any other intangibles into account. Just about every team in the division has an edge at one position or another. I have a feeling that by the time the calender flips to September next year we’ll be looking at New York, Tampa Bay, and Toronto at the top of the division, fighting for the playoffs, because those 3 teams all appear to have better pitching staffs at this point. Boston needs most of their arms to rebound and they still need to completely overhaul most of their bullpen, while Baltimore needs to find an ace while also hoping that nobody regresses from a year ago.

As far as the Blue Jays recent trading binge is concerned, I think that Alex Anthopolous has done a fantastic job putting his team in a position to compete for 90 wins next season. He went out and attacked the pitching market, swapping most of his top minor league talent for 3 mostly reliable big league pitchers in Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, and now R.A. Dickey. If those pitchers can make a smooth transition to the American League then Toronto is as good a pick as any to win the East because their offense is going to rank in the top 5 in baseball in runs scored. The sharks are circling.

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2 comments

  1. jss

    Encarnacion>T-Rex. Jays Starting rotation > AL East. You obviously have no idea how good Morrow is, and how good Romero can be. One bad season means nothing.

    • David Hruska

      That’s contradictory. If we’re supposed to fully buy into Encarnacion’s good 2012, then we better be selling on Romero, who was one of the 3 or 4 worst starters in baseball a season ago. I’m also not a Romero fan at all because he walks too many guys. He walked 5 batters per 9 a year ago and he’s walked 4 per 9 over his 4 year career. Morrow is a big strikeout pitcher, but he has yet to show any durability and he’s only really had one consistant season, 2012, when he threw only 124 innings. I also think 2 of the 3 NL imports in the rotation will struggle with the transition to the small AL East parks and the DH.

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