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AL East Preview

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This will likely come as no surprise, but the AL East is stacked. Three of the four best teams in the AL, if not the entire sport, reside in the division, and the Toronto isn’t far behind the top three. There’s also, Baltimore, but we won’t worry too much about them. Here’s how I see things shaking out:

1. Tampa Bay Rays (Projected 2012 Record: 96-66)

There isn’t another team in baseball that looks as good and as balanced as Tampa. The only real complaints that can be made about this roster is that they won’t get much offense at shortstop or catcher, but very few teams do. There are some other question marks, but they’re heavily outweighed by the positives.

To start, Tampa goes six deep in the rotation, with phenom Matt Moore taking over as the number five starter and Jeff Niemann — who’s been a pretty effective pitcher the last couple years — moving to the bullpen. Veterans David Price and James Shields anchor the top of the rotation. Price, a former number one overall pick, has settled in nicely as one of the best lefties in the game and could be making a Cy Young run this season. Shields may regress a bit from next year — he had a .258 BABIP against in 2011, and it’s hard to imagine him pitching 11 complete games for a second year in a row — but he’s got a long enough track record as an effective starter (he’s been worth at least 2 WAR every year since 2007) that both Rays fans shouldn’t be too worried about him. Third starter Jeremy Hellickson is coming off of a season in which he posted a 2.95 ERA. Unfortunately, his performance was greatly aided by a .223 BABIP, so some regression should be expected. Still, Tampa is a spectacular defensive team, which leads to generally lower BABIPs for their pitchers, and Hellickson’s minor league track record suggests that he should be a very good third option.

Fourth starter Wade Davis has never quite lived up to the hype that he generated in the minors, but he was much more effective after he started throwing a cutter last September and he should eat enough innings to be valuable at the back of the rotation even if he posts an ERA around 4.4. The real prize here could be fifth starter Moore, a lefthander who in a cup of coffee last season showed easy velocity and quality secondary pitches. In a year, he could be the undisputed ace of this group. Niemann will likely swing back to the rotation if anyone gets hurt. The Rays don’t like to rush their prospects so it would be surprising to see another of their high-ceiling arms like Chris Archer in the majors before September.

The bullpen could be the one thing that keeps this team from reaching its full potential. Kyle Farnsworth returns as the closer, and there are some familiar, if largely unproven, names. That said, Tampa understands reliever volatility better than any other team in baseball and has built some very effective relief corps in the past, largely out of spare parts.

The Rays’ pitching strength is bolstered by their outstanding defense. Tampa is above average defensively at every position in the field, and third baseman Evan Longoria and center fielder BJ Upton are arguably the best at their respective positions with the glove. Where things are less sure for the Rays are in the offensive department. Longoria is a star, as is second baseman Ben Zobrist, but shortstop Reid Brignac was actually below replacement level last year and should probably lose his starting job to Sean Rodriguez. Left fielder Desmond Jennings earns natural comparisons to Carl Crawford, but he looks like a different type of player after hitting 10 home runs in  63 games last season. Jennings’ true power level is probably less than that, but he should be a very effective player for years to come.

Upton is another question mark with the bat as while he has shown some propensity for making big plays, he also seems to lose focus in key moments. Right fielder Matt Joyce crushes left handed pitching. First baseman Carlos Pena is another question mark, he won’t hit for much average, but he still draws enough walks to get on base at an acceptable rate. If Pena can hit at least 25 homers he should be an upgrade over Casey Kotchman. With Jose Molina behind the plate, the Rays are basically punting offense at catcher.

The Rays look like the best team in baseball, not because there aren’t any question marks surrounding them, but because the questions seem less critical than those of their competitors. It may be cliched to say that teams that do the little things well win, but the Rays understand their own players better than any other team and manager Joe Maddon consistently gets as much value as possible out of his roster.

2. New York Yankees (93-69)

Allow me to indulge my inner Yankee hater for a moment. New York has an aging core, 5 designated hitters, and almost no pitching depth. They’re still one of the three best teams in the American League. After the front three, the Yankees rotation gets awful thin, but their front three are very good. Justin Verlander got all the awards last season, but CC Sabathia was arguably better. There have always been health concerns around Sabathia due to his proportions, but he’s been remarkably durable throughout his career — the last time he pitched fewer than 230 innings was in 2006 — which leads me to believe that he’s somewhat akin to David Wells, a phenomenal athlete who remained durable despite obvious conditioning issues.

Hiroki Kuroda was a very smart signing for the Yankees, even if his performance regresses slightly due to the change in leagues and move to a less favorable pitching environment, Kuroda is generally good for about 200 innings and an ERA in the 3s. Michael Pineda looked like an ace in waiting with the Mariners last season, however he showed up to camp out of shape and missing 3 mph on his fastball. It’s way too early to write Pineda off, but if he can’t progress from where he was last year, then the Yankees gave up way too much by trading Jesus Montero to get him. If Pineda can regain his fastball and develop a solid changeup, then the Yankees pitching looks much better.

Ivan Nova was a pleasant surprise for the Yankees last year, but the K and BB numbers (5.33 and 3.10 per 9 respectively) indicate that he’s due for a regression. With the Yankees infield, keeping the ball out of play is a must, and Nova doesn’t do that well enough to be considered anything better than a 5. No one really knows what to expect from Phil Hughes at this point. Top prospect Manuel Banuelos looks close to ready and could force his way into  a rotation slot if Nova and Hughes struggle. The bullpen is a strength, featuring two of the best relievers in baseball in Dave Robertson and Mariano Rivera.

The Yankees should be able to score plenty of runs as they’re above average offensively at every position on the field except DH (more on that later), however, they’re likely to give a good amount of those runs back with shoddy infield defense. The only Yankees infielder that could be described as above average with the glove is Mark Texiera, and UZR indicates that his reputation is a bit overblown (5.4 UZR/150). Texeira and second baseman Robinson Cano are the teams most productive hitters.

Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez remain productive hitters, but they’re clearly on the downsides of their careers. Both players will likely need significant time at DH to keep them fresh, which makes the signing of Raul Ibanez a bit puzzling. Ibanez can’t play in the field — or at least no self-respecting team should try him there — and his bat doesn’t really justify regular at bats. The Yankees will also carry Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez on the bench, giving them five players who really shouldn’t play defense regularly (along with Rodriguez and Jeter).

The Yankees outfield looks outstanding. It’s hard to believe given that he’s a Yankee, but Brett Gardner might be the most underrated player in baseball. Gardner has zero power, but he plays outstanding defense, gets on base and might be the best baserunner in the game. Joe Girardi’s habit of pulling Gardner against left-handed pitchers hurts his value somewhat, but he’s an outstanding player. Curtis Granderson might regress a bit after an MVP level campaign, but he’s a perfect fit for Yankee stadium, where the ball flys in his power zones. Nick Swisher gets some flak from Yankee fans, but he was worth 3.8 WAR last season, which  is pretty good. For comparison’s sake, Nelson Cruz was worth 1.6 WAR in 25 less games. For a team with injury concerns like the Yankees, the 150 games that Swisher gives every year are very valuable.

There are certainly concerns about New York, but the Yankees are still a playoff team.

3. Boston Red Sox (92-70)

We will not be discussing beer and chicken in this section. The Red Sox and Yankees could easily be flipped in these rankings, and ESPN’s David Schoenfield makes a case for the Red Sox winning 96 games and the division. I’m just not ready to buy it. New GM Ben Cherington’s first winter on the job has been a bit uneven. He made one very good trade in acquiring Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney for fourth outfielder Josh Reddick and a couple B/C level prospects. Trading shortstop Jed Lowrie for reliever Mark Melancon isn’t a bad deal given Lowrie’s inability to stay on the field, however, if Lowrie avoids the injury bug it could end up looking pretty bad. Trading Marco Scutaro to Colorado for essentially nothing can only be interpreted as a pure salary dump, which is a bit puzzling considering that Boston could have simply declined Scutaro’s option, his contract was reasonably priced, and the alternatives that the Red Sox are left with are pretty unappealing. Getting reliever Chris Carpenter as compensation for Theo Epstein was actually a decent haul, Carpenter has had trouble staying healthy, but he has a phenomenal arm.

If Clay Buchholz can stay healthy, the Red Sox match up pretty well with the Yankees and Rays one through three in the rotation. Jon Lester is a bona fide ace whose only flaw is the occasional lapse in control. Josh Beckett isn’t as good as Lester, and his ERA should rise this season as his BABIP normalizes, but the Sox will be happy is he can give them close to 200 innings with a 3.5 ERA. Buchholz hasn’t pitched more than 173 innings in a season in his career, but if he can do that this year his performance should resemble something between his 2010 and 2011 seasons, in which his peripherals were nearly identical. ZiPS has Buchholz pegged for 116.2 innings and a 4.07 FIP.

After Buchholz, things get a bit hazier. Daniel Bard is still on track to be the Red Sox fourth starter, as moving him back to the bullpen with Bailey and Melancon entrenched in their roles isn’t practical. Part of the reason Bard agreed to move to the rotation was to enhance his value in arbitration, a move back to the pen as a non-closer could create a rift with the team. Bard has perhaps the best fastball in baseball and his slider is a pretty good pitch as well, but his changeup is fringy which could lead to struggles against lefties and he flamed out as a starter in the minors due to a lack of command. He’s also never pitched more than 74 innings in a season. The fifth slot in the rotation should be filled by Alfredo Aceves or Felix Doubront, either of whom are serviceable in that role. In any case, as uncertain as the picture looks, it’s hard to imagine the back of the Sox rotation being worse than last season’s John Lackey, Tim Wakefield tandem.

The Red Sox are completely set on the right side of the infield as second baseman Dustin Pedroia and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez are arguably the best players at their positions. For my money, I’d take Pedroia over any second baseman in the game (I’m admittedly biased) 20-20 second basemen who put up .370 OBPs while playing phenomenal defense are nearly impossible to find. The left side of the infield is much less settled. Kevin Youkilis has been an extremely productive hitter in the past, but he’s clearly on the downside of his career and its questionable if he can make it through a full season at third. Shortstop looks like a black hole, as neither Mike Aviles or Nick Punto are every day players and prospect Jose Iglesias’ bat clearly isn’t ready for the majors.

The Red Sox outfield should be more productive than last season. Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury seems to have finally justified the early career Grady Sizemore comparisons with his power outburst last season and had the Red Sox made the playoffs he likely would have been the AL MVP. Even if Ellsbury’s power drops to the 20-25 home run range, he’s put himself in the conversation as the best center fielder in the game once baserunning and defense are considered. Right field will be manned by a Ryan Sweeney/Cody Ross platoon, which should be an improvement over JD Drew. Former top prospect Ryan Kalish could take over as the everyday starter in right once he’s recovered from offseason neck surgery. The biggest wild card for the 2012 Red Sox is the performance of left fielder Carl Crawford. Crawford will miss the beginning of the season, but if he comes back as the 2010 version of himself, the Sox could be division favorites. If he’s the 2011 version then Boston’s ceiling is probably 92 or 93 wins.

4. Toronto Blue Jays (81-81)

There’s plenty of reason to be excited about Toronto. Jose Bautista has emerged as one of the game’s premier power hitters, third baseman Brett Lawrie appears to be on the verge of super-stardom, and Colby Rasmus could finally reach his true potential. Allow me to throw a bit of cold water on the high expectations for a moment. Toronto’s 2012 rotation will look like this: Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil, Henderson Alvarez, Dustin McGowan. That’s certainly not terrible, but it’s hardly playoff quality either. Romero — who was previously best known as the guy the Jays drafted instead of Troy Tulowitzki — has developed into a nice pitcher, but the top three teams in the AL East can point to David Price, CC Sabathia, and Jon Lester and say they have a true ace pitcher, Romero’s not quite there yet.

Morrow — still best known as the guy the Mariners drafted over hometown hero Tim Lincecum — has great stuff, but he lacks the command to be a true top-rotation starter. Cecil and Alvarez are good, if unremarkable mid-rotation arms. McGowan once looked destined for stardom, but has had his career derailed by injuries. He’s a nice story, but fans shouldn’t expect much out of him.

The Jays are going to score a ton of runs. They’re above average or better offensively at every position except first base and left field  and they play in a launching pad. Jose Bautista has evolved from a utility player to one of the most prolific power hitters in the game due to the friendly confines of the Rogers Center, regular playing time, and a re-tooled swing. He cooled off a little in the second half last season as the Jays faded from contention, but he was setting a Barry Bonds-esque pace in the first half. Acquiring third baseman Brett Lawrie for Shawn Marcum after Lawrie wore out his welcome in Milwaukee is looking like an inspired move by Jays GM Alex Anthopolous. The British Columbia native was worth 2.7 WAR in 43 games last season, marking him for stardom.

Colby Rasmus struggled in Toronto after being acquired from the Cardinals, but he’s always had phenomenal tools and the hope is that getting out from under Tony LaRussa will help him rediscover the type of production he had in 2010, when he put up a triple slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) of .276/.361/.498 to go with 23 homers and 12 stolen bases. Eric Thames and Travis Snyder are competing for the left field job. Snyder has the higher ceiling and although it seems he’s been on the list of players looking to have breakout seasons forever, he’s still just 26. Still, it looks like Toronto will be going with Thames to start the season.

There’s been some consternation in Toronto over the Jays’ failed bids for Yu Darvish and Prince Fielder and there’s some fairness to the criticism, the Jays are a bat and a front-line arm away from competing and they do have some cash. Still, since taking over for JP Riccardi, Anthopolous has done a phenomenal job picking up talented players at steep discounts due to perceived character flaws. Toronto will compete in the near future, just not this year.

5. Baltimore Orioles (66-96)

Yuck. It wasn’t too long ago that the future looked pretty bright in Baltimore. The Orioles had a trio of talented young starters in Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, and Jake Arietta, star outfielders Nick Markakis and Adam Jones, and the next great catcher in Matt Weiters. So where did it all go wrong? Markakis is still a good player, who gets on base at a decent clip, but he never became the perennial 20-20 player that people expected as his power regressed after the 2009 season. Jones is a similarly flawed player, who looks much better in person than he actually is. He’s been unable to limit his strikeouts so far in his career and at age 26 it’s hard to see him progressing much more. Wieters has evolved into one of the best all-around catchers in the game, unfortunately he hasn’t hit the switch-hitting Joe Mauer with more home runs bar that overzealous analysts placed on him before he had taken a single major league at-bat. He may be a perennial all-star from here on out, but given where expectations were, he may also be a constant disappoinment.

The real reason that the Orioles haven’t taken a step forward, however, is their pitching never developed as expected. Tillman never translated his minor league success to the majors and seemed to lose some velocity as he progressed through the system. Similarly, Matusz was pretty good in 2010, but lost velocity in 2011 and put up an atrocious 10.69 ERA. The context neutral stats aren’t much better, Matusz’ FIP was 7.66 in 2011. He looks to have gotten a few mph back this spring which is encouraging, as when he’s pitching at 92-93 he has legitimate ace potential.

Arrieta has good stuff, but he walks too many batters, which lets patient teams like the Red Sox and Yankees tee off on him. Former top-prospect Zach Britton is out for the season. First round draft pick Dylan Bundy should move through the system quickly and could form a nice tandem with Britton and Matusz in a year or two. The rest of the Orioles starters are an assemblage of cast-off arms like Jason Hammel and unknowns like Wei-Yin Chen.

On the infield, shortstop JJ Hardy is a valuable player who plays great defense and is above average at the plate for the position, but he would be much more useful as a complementary piece on a contending team. Given all the injuries no one has any idea what to expect from Brian Roberts at this point. Everyone knows what to expect from third baseman Mark Reynolds, 30+ home runs, 200+ strikeouts, and atrocious defense. First baseman Chris Davis is the definition of a replacement level player.

If some of the Orioles young arms can recover then there’s a sliver of hope for the future, but clouding any encouraging signs are the blatant cronyism of Baltimore’s ownership, as well as new GM Dan Duquette who appears to have learned nothing from his tenure in Boston. The Orioles managed to get themselves banned from South Korea this offseason by signing a teenaged pitcher with little chance to make a major league roster, severely hampering MLB’s development efforts in that country. It’s the kind of shortsighted, abrasive action that marked the Duquette regime in Boston. Baltimore fans are a passionate bunch, and the Orioles used to be one of the most respected franchises in the game, they deserve better.

Potential MVP: Evan Longoria, 3B, TAM (ZiPS projection (AVG/OBP/OPS) .274/.367/.881 31 HRS)

I’m more bullish on Longoria than ZiPS, which adjusts slightly downward for a 2011 season in which he struggled with some nagging injuries. If he’s healthy, then he’s among the best overall players in the game. With the exception of stealing bases (although he did steal 15 in 2010) there isn’t anything that Longoria doesn’t do well. He’ll hit for average and power, draw walks, and play excellent defense at a tough position. This is the year where he earns some hardware for it.

Potential Cy Young: CC Sabathia, NYY (ZiPS (ERA, K/9, BB/9, FIP) 3.55, 7.80, 2.60, 3.39)

He’s a perennial contender for the award and a few measures had him as slightly better than Justin Verlander last season. Jon Lester and David Price put up bigger strikeout numbers, but neither of them have CCs command or durability.

Potential Rookie of the Year: Matt Moore, SP, TAM

He’s the presumptive front-runner in the AL and the best starting pitching prospect in baseball (the second best prospect in baseball according to Baseball America). Moore has electric stuff, hitting the high 90s with ease from the left side to go with a plus breaking ball and changeup. His development is also a testament to the Rays’ scouting prowess. Moore was a relatively unknown eighth round pick in 2007.

Conclusion

Once again, the AL East is the toughest division in baseball. Tampa, New York, and Boston are all World Series contenders and the Rays look like the best team in the sport. The future looks pretty bleak in Baltimore, but Toronto could be contending for a division crown a year or two down the road.

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