A little age can be a wonderful thing. Take a fine bottle of scotch for example, perhaps a bottle of Lagavulin, aged 16 years. The aging process allows the liquor to mature, thus giving it a mellow, oak-like flavor. It’s warm, delicious and all that tasty flavor is possible because of the oak-barreled aging process.
The New York Yankees are hoping this whole aging thing works just as well for them as it does for that bottle of Lagavulin. Their roster had an average age around 32 or 33 a year ago, which was the oldest in the American League although that didn’t stop them from winning 95 games. GM Brian Cashman has basically doubled down on age for the 2013 season, scooping up all the affordable mid-30’s veterans that he can get his hands on. 40-somethings Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte are back for one more go-around. So are 38-year-old Hiroki Kuroda and 39-year-old Ichiro Suzuki, two important vets from last year’s squad. 36-year-old Travis Hafner and 34-year-old Kevin Youkilis have been added to the fray to provide power.
All these maneuverings have everybody asking basically the same question: is this finally the year Father Time catches up with the Yankees? Or will they come together much more like a fine scotch on the way to another 90+ win season? Here’s some of the thoughts rattling around my brain:
Even though all 10 playoff spots have already been claimed this year, the last day of the season still has the potential for fireworks, particularly in the American League. There are plenty of important story lines floating around out there including: the American League West having a winner-take-all game out in Oakland, the AL East dogfight finally reaching a conclusion , and a Triple Crown coming into fruition, among other things. Let’s take a sneak peek at some of the more intriguing bits of news still left in the regular season.
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.
With the calendar turning over to May baseball will truly begin to heat up. We’ve had some surprises and some disappointments, and the next month of baseball will do a lot to clear up a rather cloudy picture, particularly in the AL East. Baseball’s best division has lived up to its name once again this season, producing 5 teams playing quality baseball. The AL East already looks like it could produce 3 playoff teams this year, so let’s take a look at which team has the best odds, and which has an inside track to winning the division title.
Currently every team in the AL East is sitting at or above .500, with Tampa Bay holding a slight lead at 15-8. Baltimore has been surprisingly scrappy, dominating the Blue Jays 5-1 but struggling against the Yankees dropping all 4. The Yankees were swept to start the year in Tampa, but pummeled the Red Sox in Fenway. Boston has rebounded after another slow start, going 7-1 in their last 8 games, and Toronto has feasted on a weak schedule of AL Central teams. All of these clubs have struggled with pitching except for Baltimore, which has the 8th best staff in baseball. Everyone outside of Baltimore has been an offensive powerhouse, taking 4 of the top 8 spots in runs scored, with Boston leading the pack.
If Tampa’s offense remains this potent, they immediately become the new favorites in the AL East. The Rays have a legitimately excellent pitching staff and that fact will boar its way out as the season progresses. It’s their offense that was an issue a year ago, and so far that has been the team’s real strength. Evan Longoria hit .329/.433/.561 with 4 homes and 19 RBIs and is potential MVP candidate if Josh Hamilton cools down. Carlos Pena has been one of the best free agent signings in baseball so far hitting for a .900 OPS while playing excellent defense at 1st. Matt Joyce and Luke Scott each have 5 homers, giving the Rays a nice mix of power to go with the speed of Desmond Jennings, who has stolen 6 bases.
The starting pitching is in place for a 95-win campaign if the Rays can sort out the early bullpen issues. New closer Fernando Rodney has been excellent, but the rest of the pen has been leaky. Burke Badenhop and Joel Perralta both have more than 10 appearances and still have ERAs over 7.00. The Rays may need to use former starter Wade Davis in more high leverage situations if the rest of the pen doesn’t improve. Davis has been excellent, posting a sub-2.50 ERA in 11.2 innings so far in his first season in the bullpen. Tampa also just concluded the best series victory of any team this season, defeating the Rangers in 3 games in Arlington, no easy task. The Rays are already out to an early lead, and look to be a strong contender for a playoff spot, so I’d put their odds at:
40% division title/80% playoff spot
UPDATE: Longoria has a partially torn hamstring and will miss anywhere from 4-8 weeks. This is a massive blow to Tampa Bay and will undoubtedly hurt their offense. The Rays have plenty of depth, but losing your best player is tough for any team to overcome.
Baltimore’s pitching staff has been their key to success so far, led by the impressive Jason Hammel. Hammel is 3-1 with a 1.97 ERA in 32 innings, striking out a solid 8.4 per 9. He throws a good fastball, plus slider, and a solid curve, so his success will probably continue to some degree. The other Japanese import, Wei-Yin Chen has also been pitching his socks off, posting a 2.22 ERA in 24 innings. Matt Wieters and Adam Jones have also been important to Baltimore’s success, with each hitting 6 big flies so far.
The bullpen has also done a stand-up job and has been the best in baseball, with a 2.03 ERA. Jim Johnson already has 7 saves while not allowing a run. Luis Ayala also hasn’t given up a single run in the 11 innings he has pitched, and Darren O’Day has only given up 1. However, the Orioles have struggled against the traditional powerhouses and more than likely the favorites will start to pummel Baltimore pitching, pushing the O’s back down to the cellar. Their odds:
0% division title/5% playoff spot
The New York Yankees pitching staff has been absolutely brutal so far, ranking 20th in baseball. The only reason that ranking isn’t any worse is because the Yankees bullpen has been excellent so far, ranking 3rd in baseball in ERA. CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda have both shown signs of improvement after early struggles, so their problems are probably going to be short-lived. Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia, not so much. Garcia has already been demoted to the bullpen after being shelled for 19 earned runs in 13 innings with an astronomically bad WHIP of 2.195. David Phelps, who has saved the Yankees in long relief, gets a call-up to the rotation, where his lower 90s fastball and ability to command the strike zone should play nicely.
Phil Hughes’ stay in the rotation is also probably near its conclusion, because when you give up 5 homers in 16 innings it makes it tough to win ballgames. 40-year-old Andy Pettitte should be on his way with the next couple of weeks, and if he has anything left in the tank, it will be an improvement.
The offense has gone about business as usual, ranking 3rd in baseball in runs scored, averaging 5.45 a game. The Yankees are 1st in baseball in homers, led by Curtis Granderson’s 8, and currently have 3 hitters with an OPS above .950, led by Derek Jeter’s 1.012. The offense is always present in New York, its just a matter of how much pitching the Yankees have, and this year it should be enough to get to the playoffs. Their odds:
30% division title/75% playoff spot
The Toronto Blue Jays have been an interesting team this year. They are batting .239 as a team, yet the Jays rank 8th in baseball in runs scored. They don’t walk an outstanding number of times, nor do they steal a ton of bases, ranking near the middle of the league in both categories. They have also done all of this while Jose Bautista is slumping, hitting an abysmal .181/.320/.313, with only 3 homers. Edwin Encarnacion has been the team’s best hitter mashing for a 1.054 OPS with 8 home runs and 21 RBI, both top 3 in the American League.
The starting pitching has also been improved; with 4 starters currently ranking as better than league average, led by Kyle Drabek. Drabek has struck out 26 batters in 30 innings, an excellent rate for a starter, while posting a 2.44 ERA. He has some command issues, which could get him in trouble against the patient lineups throughout the division, so it will be interesting to see if he can keep his runs allowed down going forward. Toronto has a weak bullpen that is already dealing with injury problems, so the margin of error here is thin, but if Bautista starts producing, Toronto’s pitching won’t have to be so precise. Their odds:
15% division title/35% playoff spot
After all the early fires and panicking in Boston, the Red Sox are quietly on a nice 7-1 run. The offense has been mashing, and already leads baseball in runs scored. David Ortiz is hitting a bananas .405/.457/.726, turning the clock back to 2005. Cody Ross has stepped up big time with injuries to Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsberry, hitting a solid .257 with good power, slugging 5 early homers. If Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez get going, the Red Sox lineup will turn into a pitcher’s worst nightmare. The only problem is that the pitching staff gives nearly all of Boston’s runs back.
So far the Red Sox have had the worst staff in baseball. The bullpen has been the main problem, also ranking last in baseball in ERA. Not that the starters have been any better, as only Daniel Bard ranks much above league average. Beckett and Lester have been positively mediocre, posting mid-4.00 ERAs, and Clay Buchholz has been an unmitigated disaster, posing a WHIP near 2.00 and an ERA above 8.00 in 29 innings. This kind of performance doomed the Red Sox a year ago, and it threatens to do so again. The current odds:
15% division title/30% playoff spot
With the 1st 10% of the Major League regular season in the books, let’s take a look at some of the burning questions from around the league.
Can Matt Kemp hit .400? Or how about 60 homers?
Matt Kemp launched another homerun last night, his 10th of the year, and he is currently hitting a robust .449 at the plate. Kemp is on pace to smash over 85 homeruns and post a batting average that would stand as an all-time record. Regression will inevitably set in at some point however, so his performance will inevitably decline, but does he have a shot at history. Kemp had a sizzling start a year ago, hitting .368 the 1stmonth of the season, with 6 homers before average declined, but he continued hitting homers at the same rate. While I don’t think Kemp can legitimately hit .400, I do believe that this start will enable him to bat above the .375 mark, a very difficult feat. I think Kemp has a better chance at hitting 60 dingers, because he would only need to hit a homer about 1 in every 11 at-bats the rest of the year, which would be a decline in his current 1 per 7 rate. Last year he hit 1 homer per every 15 at-bats, so he would have to continue to slug better than he did a year ago, but it is possible and I think Kemp will do it.
Do the Yankees have a pitching problem?
What was once thought to be the deepest rotation in baseball, with 7 major league caliber starters, is now treading on thin ice due to poor performance and injury. The Rangers bombed Phil Hughes yesterday, being chased after allowing 4 runs on 5 hits in 2.2 innings. His season ERA now stands at an ugly 7.88 and his biggest problem is the home run ball. Hughes has given up an unsightly 5 homers in the 16 innings he’s pitched, while allowing 13.5 hits per 9 innings. Batters are just teeing off on Phil right now. The news got worse yesterday for the Yankees and Michael Pineda, as they learned the young righty has a partially torn labrum, which requires surgery and will end his season before it began. Freddy Garcia has also been unsightly in the rotation, and now the Yankees are viewing the return of Andy Pettitte as a need, rather than a luxury. Pettitte is 40-years-old and didn’t pitch a season ago, so he should be counted on for nothing more than back of the rotation help. If Garcia can put together one good start his next time out, Hughes will probably be sent to the bullpen. CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova make up a solid top of the rotation, but the Yankees will need someone else to step up in the 3rd spot if they want to improve what has been their biggest problem so far in 2012. That pitcher will probably have to be Hiroki Kuroda, who has been mediocre for the Bronx Bombers so far. If he steps up the Yankees pitching woes will be a thing of the past. But if he continues to struggle and posts a mid-4.00 ERA or worse, New York could be watching baseball in October, because the AL East is a meat grinder this year.
Are the Nationals for real?
Most definitely yes, the Nats are for real. Washington has the best pitching staff in baseball so far. They rank 1st in runs allowed, hits allowed, homeruns allowed (only 4!!!), average fastball velocity and they rank 2nd in baseball in strikeouts. Before the season manager Davey Johnson said he would take his staff over any in baseball, including the vaunted Philadelphia rotation, and so far he’s been proven right. The top-3 of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Gio Gonzalez all possess ERAs under 2.00. Strasburg, in particular, has been untouchable, posting an absurd 336 ERA+ while striking out 10.3 batters per 9. The offense could use a little boost, ranking 22nd in baseball so far, but many of their best hitters are struggling or on the DL. Michael Morse has yet to play, and he was the team’s best hitter a year ago. Morse will probably return to action around the end of May. Ryan Zimmerman, Washington’s star 3rd baseman, has also struggled hitting only .224/.324/.345. Expect the offense to improve when the weather really heats up and expect the Nationals to keep on winning.
Should Yoenis Cespedes be your new favorite player?
Yes. The guy is a treat to watch. Cespedes swings with all his might, hits with massive power, steals bases, has a rocket launcher for an arm, and plays the game with passion. And if that isn’t enough for you how about this?
Oh, and he will probably be a 30-30 player for years to come. He already has 5 homers and 4 steals on the young season and his plate discipline is improving. And the scary part is how good Cespedes will be in a year or two, once he adjusts to living in America and gets a better grasp of the strike zone. He’s a fantastic player who is breathtaking to watch.
Where has Albert Pujols gone?
The Machine has not been the same since leaving St. Louis for the sunny shores of California. He’s having the worst April of his entire career and is also currently stuck in the worst slump of his career, a 0-19 bender that has many pundits baffled. He is now hitting .222/.282/.319 and still hasn’t hit his 1st homerun. Last night against the Tampa Bay Rays, Pujols looked downright uncomfortable at the plate, striking out twice, and pulling into the shift once. Two or three years ago, a manager wouldn’t have dared to use a shift on Pujols, because he would punish it by immediately taking the 1st good pitch to the opposite field for a base hit. The Rays shifted on Pujols for every at-bat, showing either a lot of conviction out of Joe Maddon or knowledge that Pujols is trying to pull everything. If Albert relaxes a little more at the plate and starts to use the whole field again, he will once again take his place as one of the 3-5 most feared hitters alive. Pujols should recover in time to hit around .280-.300 with 25 homers, a far cry from the production expected out of him when he signed in LA for $240 million. The bigger concern should be going forward, because if Pujols’ production is already declining, the Angels are in big trouble.
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.