The AL East probably has as much baseball history as any division in baseball and coincidence or not it is also usually host to some of the best teams in baseball. The Yankees and Red Sox are the best rivalry in baseball, the Rays are one of the better young teams in the league, Toronto is usually in the category of “if only they did not play in the AL East they would be good”, and the Orioles are trying to return to the prominence they enjoyed in the mid-90s and back in the Jim Palmer and Brooks Robinson days. The AL East is notoriously tough, but that is what makes it so much fun to watch. The Yankee-hater in me loves to root for everyone else, and the smaller Red Sox hater in me loves to point out the similarities between the two franchises. There are not too many divisions more fun than the AL East.
1. New York Yankees Projected Record: 99-63
Batting: A | Starting Pitching: A- | Relief Pitching: B+ | Defense/Speed/Other: B+
The Evil Empire is the favorite to win the East yet again and for good reason. They upgraded the rotation and outfield and are the defending World Champions. They did experience some change with Hideki Matsui, Melky Cabrera and Johnny Damon leaving, but in Curtis Granderson, Nick Johnson, and Javier Vazquez, they have more than made up for these losses. These moves are not as foolproof as they seem but they are still upgrades, a scary proposition for a team that won 103 games last year. C.C. Sabathia is still a rock and a legitimate ace, AJ Burnett is still an ace better suited for being a sidekick (like he is for the Yankees), and JavierVazquez, Andy Pettitte and Joba Chamberlain/Phil Hughes make up one of the best 3-4-5 combos in baseball. You do not want to face them in their one year old whiffle ball stadium, you do not want to face them when they are on the road and you probably would not like them on a neutral site either though that is not a realistic situation. The lineup did not change a ton from last season, but is still potent:
- Jeter (6)
- Johnson (DH)
- Teixeira (3)
- Rodriguez (5)
- Cano (4)
- Posada (2)
- Granderson (8)
- Swisher/Gardner (9)
- Gardner (7)
Obviously, that is pretty good, so let’s talk about the Granderson trade a little. It is still an upgrade, but people are going to have to alter their perception about Granderson. He is not the high-average, double-machine, base-stealing lead off guy he was when he first got to the league. His average has dropped from .300 to .280 to just .260 last year and although his home run totals have gone up, he is no longer that top-of-the-order guy we think of him as. My initial reaction to the trade is given in greater depth here. Similar things can be said about Javier Vazquez. He is without a doubt a very good pitcher, but he is not at all suited for Yankee Stadium. He is a flyball pitcher in a park where pop flies have a shot at the fences. He is still a good pitcher and all that, but he is not adding as much as his numbers last year would suggest. Still the best team in the AL.
2. Tampa Bay Rays Projected Record: 88-74
Batting: B+ | Starting Pitching: B | Relief Pitching: B+ | Defense/Speed/Other: A
This is one of the few surprises to come out of the AL East. I feel the Rays have what it takes to fight for the Wild Card this year, and that means finishing above the Red Sox. There is everything to like about this team. BJ Upton had a really bad year last year, but he is too talented not to bounce back. The pitching staff is absolutely loaded with talent top to bottom with guys who have done it in the clutch (shields and Garza). Wade Davis has not really impressed in the Grapefruit League, but there is little doubt about his abilities and he should be rounding into form just when they start to need him in late summer. David Price is still a stud despite his struggles last year, and Jeff Niemann is a sleeper you need to keep an eye on this year. He does not have the hype but he has everything he needs to be yet another solid option for the Rays. If any of those guys slips up, the Rays still have Andy Sonnanstine as a more than capable starter to fill in, and I have a feeling he will be needed at least a few times with Price and Wade still being inconsistent at this point in their careers.
The Rays will also be a complete pain on the bases for other teams this year. Joe Maddon has done this consistently, and to good effect as BJ Upton and Carl Crawford are wantd in 49 states for theft. Add to this the pop of Ben Zobrist (power not a fluke), Jason Bartlett, sleeper Sean Rodriguez at 2nd, bopper Carlos Pena, superstar Evan Longoria and the rest of the crew. I cannot find too much to dislike about this club. They lack the flash and cash of the Yanks and Sox, but they do not lack the talent. Frankly, they still have flash, so perhaps glitz would be better, but would lack the rhyming. Life is rough. The lineup should be something along the lines of:
- Upton (8)- Assuming he bounces back
- Crawford (7)
- Longoria (5)
- Pena (3)
- Zobrist (4) – Is it ok if we call him Gorilla Zo-brist? Yes, we are going to do that.
- Kapler/Joyce (9)
- Burrell (DH)
- Navarro (2)
- Bartlett (6)
That is a really good lineup, and it is not even that quietly good, it is loudly good. The Burrell and RF spots could be stronger, but there are plenty of options for filling spots like that. Actually, by mid July, I expect Sean Rodriguez to take over at 2nd and Zobrist to move to right. If Rodriguez is as good as people are saying out of Florida this year, he is going to stick, and make this team really, really good. They also picked up a closer in Rafael Soriano who has had closer stuff for a while but was stuck in a time share with Mike Gonzalez in Atlanta. They both left Atlanta and landed in the AL East (Gonzalez with Baltimore), but expect Soriano to get the better of the chances with the Rays being far superior to the Orioles. The Rays will compete for the Wild Card this year and prove that their World Series run was not a one time deal.
3. Boston Red Sox Projected Record: 87-75
Batting: B+ | Starting Pitching: B+ | Relief Pitching: B | Defense/Speed/Other: B+
This a team that is surprisingly a little in flux. The roster looks great, they have a lot of guys who should bounce back or break out, but there is something about them that brings out my inner pessimist. They have three legitimate aces in Beckett, Lester and Lackey, and behind them is a healthy Daisuke Matsuzaka and either the young Clay Buchholz or knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. If Daisuke is good, something most Bostonians are not hopeful for, the staff could be the best in the bigs, but even if he falls flat you have Mr. Consistency in Wakefield, and a young Clay Buchholz ready to step in. Some are also pessimistic about Lackey, and as far as overall numbers there might be some merit to that, but there are few guys in the league I would want to hand the ball to for a big game ahead of John lackey. The staff should be solid. However, there are some question marks in the batting order. If David Ortiz gets off to the snail-paced start he got off to last year and Adrian Beltre/Jason Varitek do not come in and produce (Beltre playing 3rd with Youkilis and 1st and Victor Martinez at catcher and Varitek at catcher with Martinez at 1st and Youkilis at 3rd), the Red Sox might be forced to pull the plug on their talismanic slugger. They do still have Mike Lowell who could DH, but if things do not go their way early they might find that the climb back up to the Yankees is too steep. I am also skeptical of Marco Scutaro’s ability to come in and replicate his numbers from last year in Toronto. That being said, all these questions in the lineup are substantially eased by knowing that every time they throw their 3rd starter out there (John lackey), it is like throwing an ace, and every time Daisuke takes the mound it looks like most team’s #2 guy. Run prevention is going to have to be the name of the game for the Red Sox because although they have Victor Martinez, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Kevin Youkilis in the lineup solidly, the other guys’ failure could really curb their run production. The lineup should be something along the lines of:
- Ellsbury (7) — I have no idea why they opted for Cameron in center instead of Ellsbury
- Pedroia (4)
- Martinez (2/3)
- Ortiz (DH)
- Youkilis (3/5)
- Cameron (8)
- Drew (9)
- Beltre (5) / Varitek (2)
- Scutaro (6)
There is little to be concerned about within the organization, they have the money to make moves at the Trade Deadline (I’m looking at you Adrian Gonzalez), and do not have to face Roy Halladay anymore. However, I am not sure how Adrian Gonzalez is going to fit with the Red Sox. He seems like a Red Sox type guy,, but I do not see where he is going to play. I have Adrian Beltre down for a good year with the Fenway advantage over the Safeco vault keeping his balls in. That means that moving Youkilis to third does not work as well to open things up at first. Adrian is a gold glover too, so he is not going to DH, though that is certainly an option if Ortiz falls on his face. The Red Sox need an outfielder, not a first baseman even if that first baseman is the bargain of the majors and primed to be traded. The Red Sox ability to make moves at the deadline could save their wild card chances, but I do not think this is the Red Sox year. I am not necessarily bullish on the Rays, but I am just not sure about how cohesive the Red Sox roster will be. Just one of those years in Boston that the fans will look at the roster and wonder where things went wrong.
The bullpen is actually a surprising weakness of this team. While the Red Sox have gotten faster and better defensively, the bullpen has quietly slid a bit. Papelbon was a nightmare for any Sox fan with high blood pressure last year and just barely recorded a lot of his saves. While Daniel Bard should be fun to watch for Sox faithful, Manny Delcarmen was not the hitter’s nightmare he was for the first few years of his career last year and I would expect a bit of a drop off out of Hideki Okajima as well. They are still solid in the bullpen (thus the B grade) but they are not the shut-down crew they once were. Wild Card is still in sight but Red Sox fans should expect to do a lot of looking up at their rivals.
T-4. Toronto Blue Jays Projected Record: 75-87
Batting: B- | Starting Pitching: B- | Relief Pitching: C+ | Defense/Speed/Other: C-
The Blue Jays are a tricky team to project. On the one hand they have a lot of young and old guys who are more than capable of regularly contributing, and in some cases thriving. But on the other hand they have a lot of guys you just cannot expect to produce or be regular contributors. It would almost be easier to look at the Blue Jays in two separate groups. In group one you have Adam Lind, Vernon Davis (despite his albatross of a contract), Lyle Overbay (maybe a stretch), Aaron Hill, Travis Snider, Shaun Marcum, and a host of other young pitchers. In the other group you have Edwin Encarnacion, Alex Gonzalez, John Buck, Jose Bautista, the bullpen, and the 2 starting pitchers who do not pitch well at all this year. Which side will win out? Aaron Hill will almost definitely not reproduce his power numbers from last season, but he should still be more than solid entering his prime power year. Adam Lind was a stud last year and Travis Snider has the talent to join him if he decides to hit the ball occasionally. This team could surprise a lot of people or it could fall flat on its face and finish 8 games back of the Orioles. I just do not know. I think Marcum-Romero-Morrow-Rzepczynski-Tallet can be a more than serviceable rotation, and I think the offense is decent enough to produce at least a little so I have them doing alright, but I really am at a loss for an exact projection. Expect the unexpected would be the most sure I could be about anything with this team.
The lineup is not especially impressive, but losing Marco Scutaro should not hurt too much with:
- Bautista (9)
- Hill (4)
- Lind (DH)
- Wells (8)
- Overbay (3)
- Encarnacion (5)
- Buck (2)
- Snider (7)
- Gonzalez (6)
Again, not a world-beating lineup, but it should do the job more than a few times this year. There is not much exciting about it and on the AstroTurf at The Rogers Centre/Sky Dome, anything can happen. Their ceiling is much lower than the Orioles’ is but I could not be shocked beyond all belief to see the Jays end around .500 even though that would mean beating the elite of the division a good number of times. If you are looking at the Blue Jays for fantasy options not named Hill or Lind, I would look first at Marcum, but also closely examine Marc R (yes, the enormous name I am not going to type again). He put up sneaky good numbers last year and could conceivably win 15 games this year. Actually, just about any of their starters should work as sleepers, just do not expect a quick wake-up from their sleep necessarily.
T-4. Baltimore Orioles Projected Record: 75-87
Batting: B | Starting Pitching: C | Relief Pitching: C | Defense/Speed/Other: C
This team is going to surprise a lot of people, but not at a level that will take them out of the cellar. They have a lot of young, intriguing guys both at the plate and on the mound, but whether those guys will all gel is a completely different story. Brian Matusz, Nolan Reimold, Matt Wieters, and Co. should at least keep things hopeful at Camden Yard this season. If everything goes perfectly for the O’s they could be fighting for third, but everything never goes completely right. In fact, with young guys in this division, things more often than not go poorly. I like this team a lot tong term and they may well end up above the Blue Jays, but I doubt the Orioles’ can hold up in a division this tough.
However, when you are talking Orioles this year, you need to cover Brian Matusz. The youngster has been much hyped this spring and offseason and for good reason. He has four pitches, with at least 3 being above average, and last year he just flew through the minors getting almost no challenge from anyone. He will be an ace in the majors, but most feel this will be a few years down the road, not this year. However, there is a small slice of the population that feels that he can be ace quality this year, and given his track record and ability it would be tough to argue against that. I am not ready to say he will win 15 games, though, if only because Baltimore is not going to win a ton and they are going to be careful with that golden arm. Still a guy to keep an eye on throughout the season.
The lineup is also full of high-ceiling guys who are still young, and has been compared to the Rays of a few years ago where they were loaded with talent but not thought to be ready yet. Personally, I think the fact that people are pegging them as the Rays has doomed them, but we will see. The lineup is going to be something like:
- Roberts (4)
- Jones (8)
- Markakis (9)
- Wieters (2)
- Reimold (7)
- Scott (DH)
- Tejada (6)
- Atkins (5)
- Izturis (6)
Again, this lineup looks great on paper, but I am not sold. Markakis had a good year last year, but not at all what many projectors were expecting. Adam Jones goes under the umbrella of fantastic athlete and “has lots of work to do to fulfill his potential”. Jones got off to a scorching start last year but really faded down the stretch. If he wants to prove his start was more indicative of his play than his overall inconsistency he has a great opportunity to prove it this year. Matt Wieters is a different story. He hit over .350 with power at every stop on his way to Baltimore, and is just about as good defensively as can be found. If I was a scout at his game and was being asked to make a comparison to a major leaguer, a grade out of 100 and contract value I would go Joe Mauer but with consistent power, 98 in the long run, 90 right now, and whatever it takes to sign him, sign him, there is no dollar value too high. He is that good. The O’s are stacked with talent, but what they lack is a clear and definite leader and depth in pitching.
The rotation did get stronger with Kevin Millwood, but behind him is the always-inconsistent Jeremy Guthrie, the young Brian Matusz, Brad Bergesen and David Hernandez. All of these guys have showed hope at some point, but are these the guys I want if my team is going to surprise people and make a run at the wild card? Absolutely not. It also bears mentioning that the O’s went out and solved their closer problem with Mike Gonzalez formerly of the Braves. I do like him, but I am not sure how mentally suited he is for being a closer. Still a good signing. Things are looking up in Baltimore, but not THAT up. Take your improvements and keep building Baltimore, do not expect anything this year, but get ready because this team is built for the long haul.
MVP- Alex Rodriguez or Evan Longoria
Cy Young- CC Sabathia
Biggest Disappointment- The Boston Red Sox
Young Players to Watch- Brian Matusz and Matt Wieters