Yet again the AL East is poised to be the most difficult division in baseball. The Red Sox had improved their lineup immensely, but their rotation remains suspect. The Yanks had a rather unproductive off-season for Yankee standards and hope to keep up with the Sox push this year. The Rays took a big step back losing Carl Crawford and Matt Garza to free agency. The Jays made changes to get more speed in their lineup, but their rotation remains unproven. Baltimore made some free agent splashes, but don’t expect them to crawl out of the AL East basement just yet. Here’s how I project the season to stack up:
#1 Boston Red Sox
With the major off-season additions of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, the Red Sox lineup may be the most dangerous in baseball this year. However, with less than stellar seasons from would be aces John Lackey and Josh Beckett, the Red Sox have some burning questions going into the 2011 season.
With Crawford, Ellsbury, and Pedroia setting the table for the mad skills of Adrian Gonzalez and the slowly declining yet still impressive bat of Big Papi, the Sox should score a ton of runs this year. If Scutaro can continue to be consistent at the plate and Mike Cameron/J.D Drew can do ample jobs at the plate this season, the back end of the order is no slouch either. We may see Ellsbury/Scutaro flip flop from the #1 and #9 spots in the order depending on who’s hot, but both have shown they are dependable leadoff hitters. Also keep an eye on upcomers Jed Lowrie, Daniel Nava, and Ryan Kalish. If Drew or Cameron start to falter, the youngsters will be poised and ready to take their spot in the lineup.
The only way the Sox don’t make the playoffs this year is if their pitching falters. Josh Beckett and John Lackey need to step up and have big years after down years last season. Jon Lester has shown an excellent pedigree and is poised to have another stellar season for Boston along with Clay Buchholz. Daisuke have shown ups and downs with his time in Boston, but if he maintained some sort of off-season regime that doesn’t include eating cheeseburgers, he should be a solid middle-end of the rotation starter. If the starters do falter the Sox are ready. Their bullpen is vastly improved from last year with the additions of Dan Wheeler and Bobby Jenks, Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon should have plenty of help.
#2 New York Yankees
As typical big spenders in the off-season, the Yanks were not able to make a big splash this year, losing out on stud pitcher Cliff Lee to the Phillies. The Yanks did shore up their bullpen with Rafael Soriano and added Canadian stud Russell Martin at catcher. The Yanks may be in for a rough ride this year if starter A.J. Burnett can’t get it together. The offense is always dangerous, but can they carry the team for 162 games?
With perennially dangerous A-Rod, Jeter, Teixeira, and young star Robinson Cano, the Yanks boast a potent offense as per usual. With Jorge Posada slowly declining in skill level at the plate, the addition of Russell Martin should be a nice transition if he can get back to his old form. Questions remain in the outfield, can Granderson, Gardner, and Swisher have big years again? The Yankees also do not have everyday DH which may be a bit of a learning curve for the team at the beginning of the season. All in all, the Yankees lineup is too potent to be kept down for long, look for the to boast big numbers again this year.
Pitching is a big question mark for the Yankees this season. After Sabathia and Hughes they are really not sure what to expect. Burnett has been inconsistent his entire career, so don’t expect that to suddenly change. The retirement of Andy Petitte has left 2 spots open in the rotation, possibly to be filled by Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre. Although these young pitchers had some excellent games last season, it is anyone’s guess how they will perform over the course of a full major league season.
#3 Tampa Bay Rays
After losing Carl Crawford and solid rotation guy Matt Garza, the Rays have some unknowns this seasons. I have the Rays penciled into third place in the AL East, but that could change for better or worse depending on how their young bats perform without Crawford and with the addition of Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon. Joe Madden will have the Rays ready to play this year, but will their talent keep them afloat?
The addition of Manny could go one of two ways: Manny has a comeback year, tearing the cover off the ball and providing protection for Longoria to have another big year OR he has a injury plagued lackluster year and is a detriment to the middle of the Rays lineup. I expect Longoria to continue to be a star third basemen in the league for years to come, but I am not totally sold on John Jaso, Sean Rodriguez, and Ben Zobrist. I believe these guys are good MLB players, but I’m not sure you can expect them to have breakout years and help carry the team like they did last season. Johnny Damon has been declining for the last several years and I wouldn’t expect too much out of him. You might as well put a pylon in LF when he’s out there, but his speed and bat should be a minor asset to the Rays.
Losing Garza was a big blow the Rays staff, but look to young pitching to step up. David Price is here to stay, he’s a an ace and should have a great year again. I like the looks of Wade Davis who is a power pitcher and put up pretty good numbers last season. Jeremy Hellickson looks to be a stud in the making, can he continue his hot streak from the end of last year (4-0, 3.47 ERA). After these 3 guys, the Rays may have some issues. James Shields had a fairly bad year last year and Jeff Niemann is really nothing special.
#4 Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays parted ways with former star CF Vernon Wells and his enormous contract. Although Wells hampered the Jays’ payroll, he did provide leadership and a solid bat in the middle of the lineup. The Jays also parted ways with ace pitcher Shaun Marcum which will leave a void that may be hard to fill in the rotation. The Jays did add speedsters Rajai David and Scott Podsednik to increase their less than average team on base percentage, they brought back Edwin Encarnacion and hope their lineup of young up and comers can propel them up the standings in the ever competitive AL East.
The Jays lead the majors in HRs last year, but are looking for a more balanced attack this year. They hope that Rajai Davis and Yunel Escobar can set the table for Jose Bautista and Adam Lind to drive in a ton of runs. The Jays are pinning their hopes on the youngsters this year with hopes of a bounceback year for Adam Lind and Aaron Hill. The addition of Juan Rivera and the re-signing of Encarnacion should provide some power in the bottom part of the lineup and Travis Snider will get the opportunity to have a breakout season. Some big questions remain behind the plate with J.P. Arencibia as he will handle the bulk of the catching. He has torn up the minors with his bat, but can he bring those numbers to the big leagues. There have also been questions about his ability to call a game at the big league level.
The Jays are relying heavily on the fact that Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, and Brett Cecil will provide a solid front end of the rotation. Romero has the makings of a big league ace, Morrow had a breakout year last year, and Cecil should be solid in the #3 slot. It seems the Jays will go with young ace Kyle Drabek in the #4 slot, this may come with some growing pains, but he showed a lot of promise in his September callup last fall. The #5 slot remains open for competition, but the competition may not be up to the task. Jesse Litsch, Marc Rzepczynksi, and Scott Richmond are competing for the spot, but it may prove to be an adventure for Jays fans each fifth day through the rotation. The Jays did smartly shore up their bullpen with potential growing pains with the starting five, adding Octavio Dotel, Carlos Villanueva, Frank Francisco, and Jon Rauch.
#5 Baltimore Orioles
The O’s have put together a mix of young players and veterans into a lineup that is very hard to predict. It all depends on the health of the veterans and how the young players mesh. The addition of Vladdy Guerrero and Derrick Lee will benefit the likes of Matt Wieters, Luke Scott, and Adam Jones as their stardom may rub off on them. The Orioles could potentially have a dangerous lineup, but their pitching will struggle to keep them in games as they are poised to be terrible in the pitching department.
The addition of Vlaimir Guerrero, Derrick Lee and J.J. Hardy bolster a young lineup comprised of Felix Pie, Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, and Nick Markakis and could put up some big numbers this year. Camden Yards has proven to be a hitter friendly park that may allow Derrick Lee to have a bounceback year. If the lineup performs at a level they are capable of, they Orioles may be able to compete with the Jays for 4th place in the AL East. The addition of Mark Reynolds adds another big bat to the squad, but his propensity to strike out may be more of a hindrance than an asset.
What pitching? The O’s are going to struggle in this department. With a projected starting 5 of: Jeremy Guthrie, Brian Matusz, Justin Duscherer, Brad Bergeson, and Chris Tillman the O’s are in for a long season. Their bats will win them a few games, but their pitching will not win them many. The O’s did shore up their bullpen with the additions of Kevin Gregg and Jeremy Accardo, but we would have to assume that they get the ninth inning with a lead from time to time to see the likes of Gregg.