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?
The American League Championship Series got off to a rousing start last night before, ultimately, ending on a sour note. Tigers closer Jose Valverde continued his season long battle with the save, giving up a pair of 2-run homers and a 4-0 lead to the Yankees in the bottom of the 9th. A couple innings later, the Tigers were able to parlay an atrocious display of defense by Nick Swisher and some timely hits into a pair of 12th inning runs to escape with a 1-0 series lead. The game was particularly disastrous for New York because not only did they hand over home-field advantage, captain Derek Jeter was also lost for the rest of the playoffs due to a broken ankle.
If the rumors that Ichiro has indeed been sent to the New York Yankees for a package of minor league pitchers (DJ Mitchell and Danny Farquhar), it signals a significant change in the Mariners front office, as well as their clubhouse. Ichiro has been a staple in Seattle since his MLB debut in 2001, delighting fans with his unorthodox batting stance, fantastic speed, and rocket launcher arm. As a life-long Yankee fan and a long-time Ichiro fan, I’m personally thrilled to watch him man the outfield and step into the batter’s box in Yankee Stadium using his trademark speed on defense to take away hits, while annihilating runners with his arm on the base paths. But what does this mean for both teams? Let’s take a look at the Mariners’ takeaway first:
The New York Yankees, losers of 6 of their last 7 games, currently have some major issues right now. The team has fallen in to a last place tie with the Boston Red Sox at 21-21, 5.5 games behind the Baltimore Orioles. The Yankees have had a rough season on the injury front as well, losing many expected key contributors for the remainder of the season. During their recent losing streak the Yankees have been outscored 34-15 and have been unwatchable when hitting with runners in scoring position, batting 6-73, for a .083 batting average. At some point the law of averages says New York will have to start hitting with runners on so what are the team’s real issues? And is any of this fixable for a ballclub that many, myself included, thought would be a World Series contender at best and a playoff team at worst? Let’s break down some of the issues in the Bronx:
The most impactful injury to date for the Yankees hasn’t been the loss of Mariano Rivera, it’s been the loss of Brett Gardner for the past month. Gardner hasn’t played since April 17th and was off to a fantastic start. He was hitting .321/.424/.393 with 2 steals while playing his trademark excellent defense. Gardner’s defense rated by most defensive metrics to be the best in baseball during the 2011 season, and without the speedster, the Yankees have been forced to choose between Raul Ibanez terrible glove and Dewayne Wise’s all-around useless game. The sooner Gardner gets back in the lineup and starts stealing bases and taking away hits the better for New York.
The Yankees are one of the many teams that have been cruelly bitten by the injury bug. The pitching staff has seen more quality arms go on the disabled list than any other franchise in the league. Michael Pineda and Joba Chamberlain, who the Yankees were counting on to throw around 240-260 combined innings in 2012, probably won’t throw a pitch this season. The greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, was horrifyingly lost for the year after slipping on the warning track in Kansas City. Rivera had thrown at least 60 innings for 9 consecutive seasons, a streak that will come to an end this year. David Robertson will be out for at least another week after straining his oblique against the Mariners on May 11th. All of those injuries will cost the Yankees 300+ combined innings, which is tough for any team, even the wealthiest, to overcome.
The good news is that the Yankees bullpen has still been strong despite missing 3 of its 4 best arms. David Phelps has thrown 29.1 innings of quality baseball, allowing only 9 earned runs. Cory Wade has given the Yankees 20 quality innings as well, and has a 190 ERA+ with a WHIP below 1. The highly paid Rafael Soriano has been worth some of his contract this season, throwing for a 172 ERA+ in 14.1 innings and earning 2 saves.
The Yankees probably won’t have the top rated bullpen in baseball like they did in 2011, but the team still has plenty of talented fireman, and will probably rank as one of the best in the American League again. The bigger problem will be overcoming the loss of Michael Pineda, which will thrust Andy Pettitte into a larger role, and forces Phil Hughes to step up.
The Yankees pitching has been downright abysmal this season, after ranking 10th in baseball in 2011. The Yankees currently rank 23rd in baseball in run prevention, and have given up the 2nd most long balls. The entire rotation of CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, and Phil Hughes has been homer-happy, allowing 38 of the 54 total. The Yankees tiny ballpark has something to do with those homeruns, but as Hiroki Kuroda said a few days ago “The homeruns I’ve been giving up are homeruns everywhere.” That, more than anything else, has been the Yankees biggest problem this season. Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, and Hiroki Kuroda all have allowed more than 10 hits per 9 innings, which means their all being hit like piñatas at a birthday party. Each pitcher has had issues locating the ball over the plate up in the zone, which are correctable going forward and could lead to some big improvement.
In better news, the Yankees rank 3rd in baseball in strikeouts, behind only the hard-throwing pitching staffs of the Nationals and Tigers. New York also has the 5th best strikeout-to-walk rate in the Majors, tied with the Cincinnati Reds. If Yankees pitchers can cut down on the homeruns allowed, their ability to strike hitters out should begin to result in quality starts, which lead to victories.
Currently every major team defensive metric available rates the Yankees defense as terrible. The outfield has been absolutely porous when Raul Ibanez plays. This issue will be alleviated by the return of Brett Gardner, the best defensive player in baseball, but only he can do so much for the team as a whole.
Derek Jeter’s bat may be looking spry, but his range in the field is certainly showing signs of age. Jeter has never been very good going to field balls hit up the middle, but this season he is reaching fewer of those than ever. Alex Rodriguez rates among the worst 3rd basemen in the American League on defense, leading to a very leaky left side of the infield, and a lot of seeing-eye singles. Eric Chavez has been valuable off the bench, but is injury-prone and should only be counted on in a limited role. Eduardo Nunez, another alternative on the left side of the infield, is even worse defensively, requiring a demotion to work on his defense. This is the risk you take when your long-term left side of the infield is over 35 years old, and there is no real solution this season.
The Yankees have tried to remedy some of the problem by playing the 5th most shifts in baseball. The Yankees have historically only shifted on big left-handed sluggers like David Ortiz, but Joe Girardi is showing some fortitude and shifting more frequently. As of May 11 the Yankees had shifted 55 times, just 15 short of last season’s total. Its difficult to say whether this is working, because the Yankees rank 26th in baseball in defensive efficiency (which measures the percentage of balls put into play that are turned into outs), tied with the Detroit Tigers, who play two poor-fielding 1st basemen in their infield.
Before the season I thought the Yankees had one of the deepest roster’s in baseball, which would serve them well over the long, arduous season. The Yankees’ depth has been severely tested this season, and outside of Raul Ibanez’s hitting and the bullpen, they have come up short. The offense has been elite so far and ranks 3rd in the majors in all 3 triple slash categories. Once they start hitting with runners on base, the runs will start flowing again. The Yankees have one of the elite offenses in baseball, which will keep them around .500, the bigger, more pressing issue is if the pitching that New York currently has is good enough to capture a playoff spot in the ferocious AL East. I’m not quite sure the Yankees have the caliber of pitching to make the postseason, and I fully expect Brian Cashman, annually one of the most active GMs in baseball, to make some sort of play to add a few wins to the overall total.
The steal is one of the most exciting, heart-pounding, and thrilling events in all of sports. When a quick runner gets on first and begins to take his lead, the entire stadium sits in nervous anticipation, thinking along with the runner: Which pitch should I go on?, How big of a lead should I get?, and in the case of a pickoff move, Get Back! Get Back!
The true Picasso’s of the steal, Ricky Henderson, Maury Willis, Lou Brock were impossible to gun down on the base paths, and could nab any base off of any pitcher at any time. These players, if used properly by managers, could be used as baseball’s point guards, shifting the defense around, irritating the pitcher, and allowing other players to pick up hits. Today’s top thieves include Brett Gardner, Dee Gordon, Coco Crisp, and Juan Pierre. Each of these players are slap hitters who rely on speed, not power, to attack an opponents pitching game. If any of the hitters can get on base, pitchers should be proceed with extreme caution, or have their pocket picked.
There are many variants to stealing bases: the steal of 2nd, 3rd, home, a double steal, a delayed steal, and even the rare triple steal, a feat not performed in over 100 years. Today we’re going to look at a couple examples of the double steal.
The double steal is a particular treat, and was performed to perfection yesterday by the St. Louis Cardinals, completely catching the unsuspecting Reds napping. Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran, a speedster in his younger years, easily swiped 2nd and 3rd last night, contributing to a big 1st inning, which put the Cardinals up for good at 3-0. Beltran saw something in the delivery from Mat Latos and was able to jump the pitch, taking 3rd without a throw. Berkman, always a heads up player, followed his teammates lead and hustled into 2nd.
About a week ago two of the fastest players in baseball were also able to pull off the feat down in Miami against the Houston Astros. Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio each led off the game with singles and put the pressure on immediately, taking 3rd and 2nd in one maneuver. Reyes has fantastic speed, and if he can get a good jump, he will almost assuredly take any base. Even with a good throw down to 3rd, Reyes was still safe, and Bonifacio wisely followed his example taking 2nd base.
Another version of the double steal, in which runners begin on 1st and 3rd is a particularly risky, but rewarding play if executed properly. The Yankees ran this to perfection with two excellent base runners, Brett Gardner and Derek Jeter, in 2010 against the Red Sox. The Yankees were able to pull this play of without a hitch, because of the speed of Gardner at 3rd base, and the jump Jeter gets at 1st. When Jeter reads the pitcher properly and gets a fast start toward 2nd base, it forces Martinez to react immediately, without looking the runner at 3rd base back. As soon as Martinez stands up to fire toward 2nd, Gardner takes off and is easily able to take 3rd base.
The middle infielder on the play is taught to come in to receive the throw in front of 2nd base so he can fire home to nab the runner. Marco Scutaro, the Red Sox shortstop attempts this maneuver, but because Brett Gardner’s jump was so excellent he has no chance at getting him at home. Jeter is able to take an extra pause to try to distract the fielder, and in doing so completely freezes Scutaro out, taking 2nd base to complete the double steal. This is a textbook version of the double steal of home, and it makes one wonder why more teams do not resort to this play in close games.
Around the League
-Boy that Cliff Lee-Matt Cain duel was a doozy wasn’t it? In a game seemingly from a previous era, the Giants were able to edge the Phillies 1-0 in 11 and it only took a tidy 2 and 27 minutes. Lee went 10 innings, throwing only 102 pitches with an astonishing 81 going for strikes. He allowed 7 hits, walked no one, and struck out 7, but got nothing to show of for his efforts. Matt Cain was similarly excellent, throwing 9 innings, scattering a measly 2 hits with 1 walk and striking out 4. The Giants won the game on a Melky Cabrera base hit 1 inning after Lee was removed from the game.
-The Washington Nationals won another 1-run game, their 5th already on the young season, beating Houston 3-2. They improved their record to a National League best 10-3, and look every bit the part of a contender. Adam LaRoche, Jason Werth, and Ian Desmond are all having nice bounce back years so far, and once Ryan Zimmerman gets it going the offense could be scary. The pitching staff has proven to be as strong as it looked on paper, allowing the 2nd fewest runs in all of baseball, behind Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and company. The schedule has been a little cushy so far, with the Mets, Astros, and Cubs all figuring to be bottom-feeders, but give the Nats credit for taking care of teams they believe they should beat.
-The best record in the American League currently belongs to the 2-year reigning champion Texas Rangers at 10-2. They plowed over Boston again last night 6-3, and are now allowing the fewest runs in all of baseball, 30 total. Boston on the other hand has been bombed for 74 runs already. If they can’t find a way to get the pitching staff in order it won’t matter what Bobby Valentine is doing or how many runs the offense scores, because team with bottom-5 pitching staffs historically do not make the playoffs and struggle to play .500 baseball. The Red Sox have played a brutal schedule so far, so expect some improvement once they get away from playing the Tigers, Rays, and Rangers, all of whom are good offensive teams.
-Bartolo Colon had a dominant night for the A’s against the Angels in a 6-0 win. At one point during his start he threw 38 straight strikes, and was utterly unhittable. He’s now 3-1 with a 2.61 ERA on the season and if he keeps this kind of performance up he could become very desirable on the trade market in June and July. The offense for Oakland was provided by Yoenis Cespedes, who smashed his 5th homer, an absolute missile to right field that scored 3 runs. Pitchers are starting to figure him out, over the past week and his batting average has dropped down to .238, but he has been having good at-bats for the most part, which is an encouraging sign.
The American League East has long been considered the best in baseball for much of the new century. The division has sent 2 teams to the playoffs every year since 2007. With Tampa Bay’s emergence as a yearly contender, Toronto’s steady improvement, and the annual Yankees-Red Sox battle, the division boasts four serious contenders for the playoffs going into 2012 as well. Let’s take a look at each of these teams chances in 2012, as well as the chances of the Baltimore Orioles, who will more than likely spend their 5th season in a row in last place. Teams are listed by their 2011 standing and all statistics listed are from 2011.
New York Yankees
The New York Yankees’ offense is loaded, possessing some of the best players from last season and some of the best relics from the past decade. The 2012 lineup will revolve around Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano, and Mark Texiera, as it did last season. Granderson and Cano were exquisite last year, with each player finishing in the top-6 in MVP voting. Granderson in particular was a run producing machine last season leading all of baseball in runs scored with 136 and leading the AL in RBIs with 119. He was the perfect package of power and speed, complementing his 41 homers with 25 stolen bases. The Yankee lineup as a whole mirrored Granderson leading baseball in homeruns while finishing 4th in stolen bases. Mark Texiera, Nick Swisher, and Alex Rodriguez are all proven power commodities, so expect New York to once again finish near the top of baseball in home runs and runs scored. Teams who score more runs tend to have a greater margin for error in the playoff race, so the Yankees will be a factor all season.
The unsung hero for the Yankees is leftfielder Brett Gardner. Last season Gardner ranked as the best defensive outfielder, if you believe in the metrics, and was easily passes the eye test as a standout glove man. Gardner led the American League in steals a year ago and he transfers his superb speed over to defense as well. No player covers more space in the outfield, and his arm is more than adequate out in left. He would best be utilized as the leadoff hitter, but manager Joe Girardi seems inclined to use Derek Jeter in the spot once again. Jeter will still provide leadership, good at-bats, and base hits but his days of driving the ball with power to all fields are behind him. Look for this lineup to once again be elite and to produce another 850-900 run season, putting it near the top of the league. Teams who score more runs tend to have a greater margin for error in the playoff race, so the Yankees will be a factor all season.
The Yankees biggest issue last season was starting pitching and GM Brian Cashman spent most of the offseason trying to shore up that weakness. The Yankees staff, led by CC Sabathia and a fierce bullpen, was borderline elite however, allowing the 10th fewest runs in baseball. If the acquisitions of Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda as well as the return of Andy Pettitte give the Yankees the deepest staff in baseball. Sabathia will more than likely repeat what he’s done the past few season which is good for about 19 wins and a low 3.00 ERA. Replacing 190 sub-par AJ Burnett innings (ERA+ of 86 last season) with anything around average should do wonders for New York and add a couple wins on last years total as well. If Phil Hughes continues to pitch as well as he has in Spring Training, he will give the Yankees a potent rotation 1 through 5. His velocity has been sitting around 92-94, up 6 mph from a year ago, and he’s weighs about 15 pounds less.
The Yankee bullpen was the strength of last year’s team and should be excellent once again. Led by Mariano Rivera and David Robertson the Yankees posses two of the five most valuable relievers in all of baseball from last year. The Yankees will be tough to beat once again if they take a lead into the 7th inning.
Overall this team appears to be stronger than last year’s edition, which won the division and finished the regular season as the #1 seed in the playoffs. The Yankees will probably finish with a top-5 offense and a top-10 pitching staff which is a recipe for another playoff birth. With the largest payroll in the game nothing less than a title is expected in New York and October is where this team will be judged.
Tampa Bay Rays
The 2011 Tampa Bay Rays will forever be remembered for their incredible comeback to pass the Red Sox for the final playoff spot. The team was formidable, possessing the best pitching staff in the American League and winning 91 games. The 2012 edition looks to be a strong contender for a repeat appearance in the playoffs, but much of their success will come down to scoring enough runs.
The Tampa Bay offense was middle of the pack a season ago, finishing 8th in the AL in runs scored. Teams with that sort of scoring capability rarely make the playoffs. The good news for the 2012 team is that they should be a bit more powerful and could be getting some bounce back season out of their most talented player Evan Longoria. Longoria struggled with his batting average somewhat last season, hitting only .244 with his Batting Average on Balls in Play, BABIP, sitting at a paltry .239. The league average is .300. This means that Longoria was probably somewhat unlucky last season and should see improvement with his average. That could mean an increase in his power numbers which were already substantial last season, seeing as he hit 31 homeruns.
The rest of the Tampa lineup is a grab bag between low average/high power players like Carlos Pena, and speed types like BJ Upton or Desmond Jennings. Jennings had some solid success during his 63 game stint with last year’s Rays team. He stole 20 bases at a solid 77% success rate, while hitting 10 homers, and showing a good glove in the outfield. He will have a much more increased role on the 2012 team and could improve the offense by stealing more than 40 bases and hitting for 15 or so homeruns. BJ Upton and Matt Joyce round out an above average defensive outfield and each player brings some pop to the plate. Another important player for Tampa Bay is utility superstar Ben Zobrist.
Zobrist spent most of 2011 at 2nd base after spending most of 2010 in the outfield. He perfectly fills any defensive role that manager Joe Maddon needs, playing well at any position. In addition to playing excellent defense around the diamond, Zobrist brings a multi-dimensional bat to the plate as well. He can draw a walk, with two career seasons of 90 or more, he can hit for power, with two seasons of 20 or more homers, and he can steal bases, averaging 20 over the last 3 seasons. He’s an extremely useful, versatile player that any big league manager would love to have.
The Tampa Bay pitching staff was the best in the American League a year ago and could be even better in 2012. Matt Moore, hero of their lone playoff win, should pitch at least 150 innings after only receiving 9.1 during the regular season last year. He has ace potential, in before 2011 he was the highest rated minor league pitcher by Baseball America, and is not the only one on the staff. David Price, Cy Young runner-up in 2010, is also a near lock to throw 200+ quality innings. I expect that his 2012 will be another Cy Young worthy campaign, and he could win as many as 20 games while striking out over 200. James Shields had his strongest season of his career in 2011, and will look to repeat that in 2012. He had a 2.82 ERA last year and gives the Rays a three headed monster at the top of the rotation.
In addition to being top heavy the Rays have enviable depth as well, with Jeremy Hellickson, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, and Alex Cobb all competing for a starting spot. If the bullpen comes together as it has the past 2 season behind Kyle Farnsworth, the Rays will again allow the fewest runs in the American League, and remain a threat to win 90+ games.
Boston Red Sox
Boston has had an interesting offseason to say the least. The chicken and beer thing has become a national joke that just won’t die, Theo Epstien left for Chicago, Bobby Valentine was hired to bring some order back to the clubhouse, and closer Jonathan Paplebon left town only to be replaced by Andrew Bailey. In addition John Lackey went down for the year, Daisuke Matsuzaka won’t pitch for the big league team until May at the earliest, and Andrew Bard is being brought into the rotation.
On the offensive side of the ball however the Red Sox should be just fine. They ranked first in baseball in runs scored and have the firepower to do it again. They’re led by a fierce top of the order featuring Jacoby Ellsberry, Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, and David Ortiz. Gonzalez and Ortiz each brought the power last season, with both ranking in the top 10 in baseball in OPS+, a key indicator for sluggers. Gonzalez hit a massive .338/.410/.548 slash line with 45 doubles and 27 homers. If the power numbers return to previous norms (he once hit 40 homers playing half his games in cavernous Petco Park) he could lead the league in homeruns. Jacoby Ellsberry is also a good bet to repeat much of his strong 2011 season which saw him massively increase his power hitting 32 homers and driving in over 100 while mostly hitting leadoff.
The Red Sox lineup could also see some improvement on last year’s run total if some players such as Kevin Youkilis and Carl Crawford improve on disappointing seasons in 2011. Youkilis was still an All-Star a season ago but he only played in 120 games, marking the 3rd straight season he’s missed 25 games or more, and was abysmal after the break. In the second half he only played in 37 games an hit an unplayable .199/.314/.346. If his play over the course of the season resembles what it was during his first half, a more robust .285/.399/.512, and he stays healthy the Sox lineup gets a quite a bit tougher. Crawford’s struggles a season ago were well documented. He seemed to lose all his speed, all his bat speed, and all his range in the outfield all at once. The Red Sox better hope 2011 was just an aberration because they are still on the hook for 5 more seasons at about $20 million a year.
Last season it wasn’t the Red Sox offense that let them down but their pitching, which ranked 21st in baseball. Teams who have a bottom-10 offense or pitching staff rarely make it to October, so what happened to Boston at the end of last season was not a fluke. A season ago Boston gave 310 innings to John Lackey, 6.41 ERA, and Tim Wakefield, 5.12 ERA. The fact that both pitchers were still able to finish with records around .500 is a minor miracle and a testament to the strength of the Boston attack. The Red Sox intend to replace those innings with at least 75 more from Clay Buchholz, and the rest split between former relievers Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves.
Clay Buchholz, when healthy, has the potential to be a #2 pitcher. In 2010 he led the American League in ERA+ at a phenomenal 187(ERA was 2.33) while throwing 173 innings. Last season he pitched moderately well in the 80 the Red Sox got out of him, posting a 3.48 ERA. If the Red Sox could get even that out of Buchholz they will be able to add 2-4 wins and get a playoff spot. If either experiment with Bard or Aceves works the Red Sox will have a solid rotation provided that neither Lester or Beckett decline too much. Beckett is going into his age 32 season and could begin to see some slip in his performance, which will be worth keeping an eye on.
The 2012 Red Sox looked prime for a comeback and return to the playoffs after a 2 year absence. The team will once again have an elite offense capable of keeping them in any game. The bullpen may be a spot of weakness, with the loss of so many quality arms from a year ago, but if Andrew Bailey can handle the Boston spotlight, it should be around average as a whole. The media will more than likely hail Bobby V if he guides this team to the playoffs, but he will have very little impact on that. Boston will only go as far as its pitching can take them, which should be good enough for the playoffs. Remember this team had an expected record based on runs scored/against of 94-68 a season ago and has the offensive talent to win about that many games regardless of pitching.
Toronto Blue Jays
Toronto, much like the Red Sox, was an offensive powerhouse being held back by lousy pitching. The Blue Jays produced an elite 743 runs, good for 6th in baseball, but finished an awful 25th in runs allowed. The team was rumored to be interested in Yu Darvish in the offseason, but with Texas winning his rights the Jays will go into 2012 with a similar rotation to the one that got battered last season.
Ricky Romero was the lone bright spot on what was otherwise an entirely above league average staff. Romero posted a 2.92 ERA pitching against some of baseball’s best offenses and struck out 7 batters per 9 innings. The rest of the under-28 rotation returning, Brendan Morrow and Brett Cecil disappointed a year ago.
Morrow has shown great potential, striking out an elite 10+ batters per 9 the last 2 seasons he’s pitched. His issue appears to be control, where he is walking 3-4 batters a game. His walk rate has improved over the past 3 seasons so maybe this is the year he puts it together and breaks out as a true ace. The bottom of the rotation is currently comprised of youngsters Henderson Alvarez and Dustin McGowen. Neither pitcher has been considered much more than bottom of the rotation filler coming up through the minors and those type of pitchers tend to get hit hard in this division. Toronto’s best shot at competing this season is going to be improvement from within, as the team was quiet on the free agent market offensively as well.
The Blue Jays offense has been fairly robust the past 2 seasons, led by the surprising emergence of Jose Bautista. Bautista has led baseball in homers each of the past 2 years hitting a combined 97. His slash line last year was an absurd .302/.447/.608 and he led baseball with an outstanding 181 OPS+. Pitchers fear Bautista more than any other hitter as well, walking him a league leading 132 times in 2011 after 100 walks in 2010. His production is real and will not just disappear overnight. Bautista will be one of the most frightening hitters to face for any American League pitcher.
The rest of the offense is still young and features Brett Lawrie, Eric Thames, and Colby Rasmus. Rasmus was received in the Edwin Jackson trade that pushed St. Louis over the top in 2011 and struggled badly in adjusting to life in the AL. He hit .173 after the trade slugging only 3 homers in 35 games. He will have to improve his numbers in 2011 or risk being considered a bust at the age of 25.
On the opposite end of the spectrum last year was Canadian-native Brett Lawrie, who immediately became a fan favorite. In Lawrie’s 45 game stint, the 12 year old hit .293/.373/.580 and could be a future star at 3rd. He has good power, hitting 9 homeruns, and good speed, stealing 7 bases in a neat 8 attempts. If he continues to improve Toronto will have 2 mashers in the middle of their lineup.
Overall the Blue Jays are probably looking at another year in 4th place. The team just doesn’t appear to have the pitching to compete with the rest of the American League field, even if Morrow improves and has a breakout season. Had the team been able to acquire Darvish the outlook might be different, but the Blue Jays will just have to wait until next offseason to get a big name pitcher.
There hasn’t been a whole lot to get excited about in Baltimore for the past decade. The franchise is completely broken at this point and in dire need of repair. They hired Dan Duquette, formerly of the Boston Red Sox from over a decade ago, to be their GM this offseason and the move was widely met with question marks. The roster he inherits is mostly bare possessing only a few usable assets in Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, and JJ Hardy. The pitching staff is a wasteland where arms go to die, backed by one of the worst defenses in baseball.
The Orioles offense last season was surprisingly mediocre, rating in the middle of the league in runs scored, even outscoring Tampa Bay. Matt Wieters had a breakout 2nd half and his defense was superb last season, garnering him the Gold Glove. He has a rocket arm behind the plate and he is quick to throw to 2nd, catching 37% of stealers a year ago. He’s a good bet to hit 30 home runs and drive in nearly 100 RBIs. Mark Reynolds is also back to reprise his 30 homer/200 strikeout routine. The JJ Hardy will be hard pressed to repeat his 30 homer season but 25 shouldn’t be out of the question, giving the Orioles some good pop at shortstop.
The pitching staff was easily the worst in baseball last year, allowing nearly 60 more runs than anyone else for a staggering 860. No starter even rated as league average, granted Mark Reynolds was single handedly killing the staff with his atrocious defense. Last year Reynolds topped all of baseball in errors for the 3rd time in his career with 31. Reynolds has little range and looks as if he is trying to field the ball with oven mitts on his hands. Even when he makes a clean play he is prone to overthrow first badly, giving the opposition extra bases.
To look on the bright side, the good news is that most of the O’s 2012 staff is young or completely unproven. Zach Britton showed promise a year ago but even his numbers were rough. It was only 2 seasons ago that Brian Matusz was a highly rated prospect who finished 5th in the Rookie of the Year voting. Wei-Yin Chin and Tsuyoshi Wada could offer some cheap value or just as easily implode. Chen has been a fairly dominant pitcher in the Nippon Pro League who has a slider forkball and 87-91 mph fastball. Wada has a fastball that sits between 84-88 mph and could have some issue with getting hit hard and doesn’t appear to have starter material in the MLB.
Some potential is here but the Orioles will probably allow the most runs in baseball again, guaranteeing them the cellar for another year.
*New York Yankees
*Boston Red Sox
Tampa Bay Rays
Toronto Blue Jays
AL East MVP: Adrian Gonzalez
AL East Cy Young: CC Sabathia
This division will be a dogfight and could be won by either New York, Boston, or Tampa. I think that all three of these teams will be a threat to win 90 games and the AL East will capture at least 1 Wild Card spot. I like New York to finish on top because they have pitching depth to rival Tampa Bay and offensive fire power on par with the Red Sox. Tampa will probably boast a league average offense leaving them vulnerable to missing the playoffs, and if Boston doesn’t get their pitching situation straight they could miss the playoffs for a 3rd straight year. Until Toronto and Baltimore improve their pitching situations neither team will be a true contender, although Toronto has the firepower to again finish around .500. This division has 3 potential World Series teams, and if either Boston, New York, or Tampa fit all the pieces of the puzzle together, look out.
I was looking up numbers for a discussion on teams that typically make the postseason when I noticed an interesting trend. Back in good ole’ year 2000 when runs were plentiful, 17 Major League teams scoring more than 800 runs, with 7 of those teams scoring over 900. The same year 16 players hit 40 or more home runs, led by Sammy Sosa with 50. Pitching in the majors was not for the faint of heart. Hitters were destroying the baseball, and to fans the game seemed like it was entering the future. Parks would be smaller, players would be bigger, scores would be higher, stadiums packed, contracts astronomical. A year later Bonds broke the homerun record with 73, while walking nearly as much intentionally. Baseball was forever a different game.
The steroid scandal rocked the sport shortly after and by 2003, baseball would finally have mandatory drug testing. Testing has greatly improved since 2003 and today’s game looks radically different from baseball at the turn of the century. In the last 3 years combined 13 teams have scored more than 800 and only one, the 2009 Yankees, scored more than 900. Last season two players, Jose Bautista (43) and Curtis Grander son (41), topped 40 homers. What happened? Either today’s pitchers have gotten significantly better (maybe), the sabermetric trend is greatly favoring pitchers (probably somewhat) or steroid testing has significantly affected baseball.
The numbers are backing it up, and it is showing up in the games as well. Apart from a few players, guys like Adam Dunn and Albert Pujols, the average major leaguer is smaller today. Small ball is making a comeback. In 2011 teams stole 3,279 bases, up about 350 from the 2000 season. 400 fewer errors were made last year compared to 2000 as well, which means that the value being placed by front offices everywhere on defense is grading out. Only one team in 2000, Cincinnati, converted over 70% of batted balls into outs while last year we had 10 such teams.
Today’s players are slimmer, faster, and more athletic which means more dynamic defense. Some of this movement has to be related to testing. With fewer players having unlimited power due to steroids, it means that on any given night in ballparks around the country players are flashing the leather. Fewer complete liabilities on defense are getting jobs. Gone are the days when you could go to the park and see Barry Bonds or Gary Sheffield in left, Big Mac or Greg Vaughn at first. You may still have a Prince Fielder or David Ortiz, but these guys are going to be getting DH at-bats, but every year more guys like Sam Fuld and Brett Gardner are stealing hits away.