MLB Preview Bonanza: AL East

Well, we’ve reached the big boys of the American League, which, despite what Tim might tell you, means we’ve reached the big boys of MLB. Each of the last three AL Champions, and two of the last three World Series winners, have been from the AL East, and it’s been a different team each time. You can make a very reasonable argument that three of the six best teams in baseball are in the AL East, which means one of them is going to get left out of the playoffs. There’s also the fact that—allegedly—the Baltimore Orioles are getting better, meaning the 19 “easy” games in the division won’t be as easy anymore. Even so, the Wild Card will almost certainly come out of this division. After all, it has every year since 2006.

New York Yankees

Last Season: 103-59 1st AL East, Won World Series

This Season: 107-55 1st AL East, Will Win World Series

Did you guys forget that the Yankees won the World Series last year? That they scored more runs than any other team in baseball? That they managed to stage heroic comebacks off the like of Joe Nathan and Brian Fuentes in the postseason? That A-Rod finally disproved the myth of clutch? That CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira proved that they were worth every penny? Because if you did, then I’m happy to remind you. The Yankees were the best team in baseball last season, and they return most of their core players. The big exceptions, of course, are Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, who signed elsewhere and were replaced by Curtis Granderson and Nick Johnson. They also added Javier Vasquez, who finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting last year. Factor in that Alex Rodriguez will be healthy to start the year, and it’s not hard to see the Yankees actually getting better in 2010.

How happy were you writing that paragraph? That paragraph was probably as easy for me to write as Tim’s paragraph on the Phillies will be difficult for him to write.

You don’t think losing Damon and Matsui will prove to be catastrophic? As I said in my breakdowns of the Angels and Tigers, it was tough to see those guys go, but probably appropriate. The Yankees had a really bad outfield defensively last year, and a lot of that was due to Damon, while Matsui couldn’t play the field at all. Plus, both of those guys were getting a little long in the tooth, and injuries were bound to be a concern for both of them—especially Matsui—at some point this year.

Do you think Granderson can adequately replace Damon, and Johnson Matsui? Well, my friend, I believe you’ve fallen for the same misconception as most people. Because Granderson and Damon are both outfielders, and they essentially swapped teams, they are being portrayed as replacing each other. If you look at how the lineup for the Yankees is construed, though, that’s not really true. Johnson will actually hit in the two-spot in the order—Damon’s old haunt—and Granderson will be asked to provide power at the bottom of the lineup. Johnson’s job will be to get on base and create RBI opportunities for Teixeira and A-Rod. And Nick Johnson gets on base at an astonishing rate. He has a career OBP of .402 and, even though he didn’t get a hit for the first three games of the season, he was still on base 40% of the time. Even if he doesn’t hit for the power Damon hit for last year—though his power numbers should go up in Yankee Stadium—that alone makes him as valuable as Damon.

What about Granderson’s power matching Matsui’s? That may be difficult, since Granderson apparently never learned how to hit lefties. Matsui’s primary value last year was providing protection for Teixeira and Rodriguez, and Granderson can’t really fill that role if he’s so susceptible to left-handed pitching. This puts a lot of pressure on Robinson Cano to finally make the leap fans have hoped he would make. It’s a little unfair to accuse a guy who just hit .320 of not reaching his full potential, but Cano has been tantalizing Yankee fans for years now with hot streaks in which he’s better than Rodriguez or Jeter. If he can only learn to be a little more selective, then he can be as good a hitter than anyone on the team.

And what about pitching? Is Javier Vazquez going to be like 2004 Vazquez or 2009 Vazquez? As much I’d like to say 2009, most of the evidence points to that being a pretty aberrational year, and the Yankees have been burnt before by getting too excited about pitchers coming off one great year in the NL East. The difference, though, is that the Yankees are now only asking Vazquez to be the fourth starter, and not the ace. Even if Vazquez only pitches as well as he did for Chicago in 2008 (and hopefully it’ll be better than that), it’ll still be an improvement over the Joba Chamberlain/Sergio Mitre/Chad Gaudin combo the Yankees relied on over the second half of last season.

Speaking of which, are you ready to concede defeat about Joba? No! Never!

Seriously? Well, I still maintain that a good starting pitcher is more valuable than a great reliever, and that Joba Chamberlain showed signs of being a good starting pitcher, especially early last year. But you can only give a guy so many chances, and he just couldn’t put everything together towards the end of last year. Now Phil Hughes is getting his turn in the rotation, and he’ll probably get at least as much leeway as Joba get last year. It’s just hard for me to envision any scenario in which Joba gets into the rotation this year, at least one that doesn’t involve an injury to the Yankees current rotation: If he pitches well in the bullpen, then he stays in the role he’s most effective, and if he doesn’t pitch well in the bullpen, then it’s not like he’s going to get promoted.

What about next year? Next year will be Joba’s fourth full season in the majors; it may be too late to change his role at that point.

Tampa Bay Rays

Last Season: 84-78, 3rd AL East

This Season: 95-67, 2nd AL East/Win Wild Card

The Tampa Bay Rays suffered a bit of a set back last year, winning 13 fewer games than they did the year before. Part of that was due to the fact that they really overachieved in 2008, but part of it was due to bad luck last year: Akinori Iwamura got hurt, Dioner Navarro took a step back and got injured, Scott Kazmir spent time on the DL. What was probably encouraging for Rays fans, though, was how well the Rays handled it. They managed to get value from Kazmir, in Sean Rodriguez, who tore up the spring. They also used the opportunity to give guys like David Price, Reid Brignac, and Wade Davis some crucial development time. This experience will be important as the Rays make a key run to the Wild Card this year.

Remember when this team was the Devil Rays? Has there been a more successful name change in the history of sports? The team had never lost fewer than 91 games, and only managed to crawl out of the AL East cellar once in a decade of existence. Then they drop “Devil” and they make the World Series.

How good is Ben Zobrist? Apparently, a lot better than you probably realize. I’m not an expert in WAR, but apparently he had the same WAR as Joe Mauer last year. Since I don’t really understand how the stat is computed—although I know it includes defensive metrics—I wonder how much of Zobrit’s WAR prowess is due to his ability to play multiple positions. Either way, Zobrist is a great player. Iwamura’s injury was actually a blessing for Tampa Bay in that it gave Zobrist a chance to play every day, and all he did in response was have a .405 OBP and the highest slugging percentage on the team.

How good is Evan Longoria? Really good, and probably still getting better. Longoria was a 30-100 guy last season, and he was only 23 years old. His best years are still ahead of him, and let’s not forget that Tampa Bay has his services locked up for another three years after 2010.

What about the rest of the team? Not so much. Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford are going to be free agents after this season, and the Rays will almost certainly not be able to match what either can get on the open market. This only puts even more of a premium on this year for the Rays, though: While the Yankees and Boston are built for the long haul thanks to their deep pockets, the Rays’ window probably closes after 2010. They still have a great farm system, and Longoria under contract, but they’ll probably need at least another year or two to develop a new core after this season.

What about the rotation? If James Shields can straighten out, then he and Garza are a potent 1-2 at the front of the rotation. The back of the rotation is young, but potentially awesome. Jeff Niemann had a very good rookie campaign last season; David Price was lights out in the 2008 postseason; and Wade Davis’ stuff looked electric when he was called up in 2009. If even three of those five guys pitch as well as they are capable of, then the Rays have a very intimidating staff.

Boston Red Sox

Last Season: 95-67, 2nd AL East/Won Wild Card

This Season: 86-76, 3rd AL East

Wow, John, way to be objective. What?

You think the Red Sox are going to finish third, and lose nine more games this year than last year? Is that so hard to believe? They lost Jason Bay, who was their second best hitter overall last year. David Ortiz is still an integral part of that offense. Jonathan Papelbon is losing more and more on his fastball with every appearance. Despite Theo Epstein’s adherence to sabermetrics, their major offensive additions in the off-season were Adrian Beltre and Mike Cameron, who have each had exactly one season since 2001 with an OBP over .350.

Don’t be disingenuous. Beltre and Cameron were added for defensive reasons. Boston is going to focus on pitching and defense this year, haven’t you heard? I’ve heard and heard and heard, but it still doesn’t make sense: Why would you build around pitching and defense when you play in Fenway Park half the year? Also, you can add defense and still have more pop than Boston currently has; other than Kevin Youkilis and Victor Martinez, nobody in that lineup scares me. And as for the pitching, too much was made of Boston’s signing of John Lackey. Lackey has been a pretty good but not great pitcher for all but one of his seasons in the big leagues. He’s an upgrade over Dice-K (man, remember when Dice-K won 18 games?) and Clay Bucholz at the #3 spot, but not by all that much.

Would you rather have the Red Sox rotation or the Yankees rotation? Or, for that matter, the Rays rotation? The Red Sox may have the best rotation, 1-5, of all the teams in the AL East, but even if they do, it’s not by much; you can make a serious case for all three teams, and that’s before factoring in the injury histories of Beckett, Lackey, and Dice-K. With so little separating the teams, though, a lot is going to come down to the offenses, and Boston’s offense features far more question marks—Ortiz, Beltre, Cameron, Jacoby Ellsbury, Marco Scutaro—than the other two.

Just admit it: You’re a little biased. Do you want me to say that I hate the Red Sox and hope for their failure every second of the day? Because I do. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Red Sox are built with an awful lot of holes in their team this year.

Toronto Blue Jays

Last Season: 75-87, 4th AL East

This Season: 74-88, 4th AL East

I thought the Orioles were supposed to be good this year; they still won’t pass the Blue Jays? Here’s something I was surprised to find out: The Blue Jays run differential last season was actually +27. That’s right it was positive by 27 runs. If you’re scoring at home, that’s 29 runs better than Detroit, 35 better than Chicago, and 79 better than Seattle. They were almost 80 runs better than Seattle and they still lost 10 more games! The Blue Jays radically underachieved last year. Their Pythagorean was only two games worse than Tampa Bay’s.

Then, dude, why do you actually have them getting WORSE? You may not have heard, but the Blue Jays traded a fellow named Roy Halladay this off-season. Roy Halladay is a very good pitcher. The best, even. According to FanGraphs, Halladay was, by himself, worth about six or seven wins last season. So losing him knocks them down a bit. They also had Scott Rolen, who had a good year last season, for half the year before trading him to Cincinnati, and a much better year than they had any right to expect from Lyle Overbay.

Well, some guys will probably overachieve in his place. Maybe Vernon Wells? Wells is a great story about how one guy can basically kill a franchise like Toronto—a mid-size market in a tough division. Back in 2004, when Kansas City traded Carlos Beltran, Wells looked like the heir to the throne of “Best CF in the AL.” In 2006, he had arguably his best year ever, hitting 32 home runs and notching an OPS of .899. He was rewarded with a seven-year $126 million deal.* He then proceeded to get much, much worse over the next three seasons. He hasn’t hit more than 20 home runs or knocked in more than 80 since the contract was signed; in the first season after, his OBP dropped 53 points. With so much money tied up in Wells, Toronto couldn’t afford to build a team around the best pitcher in baseball, even though they had solid pieces like Adam Lind and Aaron Hill. Instead, the last few years have been more or less squandered.

*Interestingly, Barry Zito signed a contract of the same length and the same value in the same off-season. Is it a coincidence these are two of the five worst contracts of all time? Probably.

Still, though, he could bounce back this year… Yeah, I guess he could.

Baltimore Orioles

Last Season: 64-98, 5th AL East

This Season: 70-92, 5th AL East

I thought you said Baltimore was going to be good this year? I have them winning six more games!

Are the records you’re predicting even mathematically sound? I’m offended you would even ask.

But seriously, how good are the Orioles this year? Well, Kevin Millwood is their ace, so they can’t be that good.

That’s not fair. Millwood had a pretty good year last year. Alright, fine, but I still don’t see him turning the O’s into a contender. What the Orioles have right now is a lot of potential. I’ve thought for a couple years now that Nick Markakis was going to be great and that it was a real shame that he would have to be great in Baltimore. With Adam Jones, Nolan Reimold, and even Felix Pie, though, that actually looks like it could be a very threatening outfield in a few years. They also have good young arms in Brian Matusz, Brad Bergesen, David Hernandez, and a few others still in the minors. Add in Matt Wieters and this looks a lot like the mixture of young talent that Tampa Bay had a few years ago.

Just how good is Wieters? Is he the next Joe Mauer? Seeing someone described as “the next Joe Mauer” on the cover of Sports Illustrated actually made me feel old: “I remember back when Joe Mauer was the next Joe Mauer!” It’s a lot to ask a kid to live up to Mauer’s shoes, and Wieters looked pretty raw to me in his limited time last year. With that said, guys with that kind of talent seem to put it together all at once; Joe Mauer did it in his second full season.

So next year, then? Don’t hold me to that. But if I were Baltimore, I would think next year, when the East opens up a little with the Rays presumably dropping, would be the year to make a surge. Which is why some of Baltimore’s moves are a little odd: How much value will Miguel Tejada and Garrett Atkins add to a team that won’t win 80 games this year? Aren’t those at-bats you want to give someone young in your system, like Josh Bell or Brandon Snyder?

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Tim on April 10, 2010 at 11:33 PM

    Yeah, if I saw an O/U 20 on games of separation between the Yankees and Red Sox, I’d have to take the Over.

    P.S. Is Tampa that good? I don’t buy that starting rotation. It strikes me as a collection of 2, 3, and 4 starters.


    • Posted by John S on April 11, 2010 at 2:47 AM

      Yeah, I’m probably being a little generous. But, hey, with a little luck, a few breaks, and maybe another big name added at the trade deadline, I can see Boston getting to 86 wins.

      And, yes, Tampa’s rotation depends almost entirely on how guys like Price and Davis develop this season, and on Shields returning to form. But there’s a lot to like there. At least four of them have ace-potential.


  2. […] and as Tim predicted, I was probably a little generous in estimating 107 wins for the Yankees. They’re only on pace […]


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