2012 AL East Preview: The Strongest Division
1. Tampa Bay Rays
As a boldly predicted in my previous article, I like the Rays to be the AL East champions despite their division rivals making more noise with their offseason moves. Last season was the year the Rays were supposed to come crashing down after losing so many important pieces that offseason (most notably Carl Crawford, Matt Garza, Rafael Soriano, and Carlos Pena), yet they completed one of the best comeback stories in baseball history by squeaking into the playoffs over the Red Sox.
This offseason, the Rays did not lose any significant players, and in fact added signed two bats to improve a relatively average lineup last season. Peña returned to the Rays, after a one-year hiatus with the Chicago Cubs, where he had his best offensive seasons in his career. He also plays outstanding defense and should help boost the power in the middle of the Rays lineup.
Former Baltimore Orioles outfielder Luke Scott also joined the Rays over the offseason. Before last year's injury-plagued season, Scott hit 23 or more home runs for three straight years with the O's. However, the real offensive talent are the four young studs at the top of the lineup, Desmond Jennings, B.J. Upton, Ben Zobrist and last year's game-162 hero Evan Longoria.
Jennings showed he was the real deal once he got called up, and the Rays immediately started playing better baseball when their top prospect was moved into the starting lineup. He had 10 home runs and 20 steals in just 63 games, and is a popular breakout pick among several baseball experts.
The Rays were expecting more from Upton, a former top prospect and second overall selection in the 2002 MLB draft, however he still delivers respectable home run numbers and a very high amount of steals each season. Upton will start the year on the D.L., but if he can improve his batting average, the Jennings-Upton duo at the top of the lineup will be deadly. Zobrist is one of the most versatile players in all of baseball, and he had a bounceback season last year after a disappointing 2010 campaign.
Then, there's the Rays most valuable hitter, Evan Longoria. While Longoria only batted .244 last season (a 50-point drop from his 2010 season) and missed close to 30 games due to injury, he still had a major impact during the Rays September run and provided baseball with one of its most classic moments with his walk-off home run to send the Rays into the playoffs. While Longoria did have 31 home runs last season, expect his batting average to rise and to be a serious candidate in the AL MVP race. Add in Matt Joyce who is looking to add on to his breakout season last year, and the Rays have a potent lineup that is greatly improved from last season.
However, the real strength of the Rays is their pitching. Their starting pitching depth is amongst the tops in baseball, and they added one major pitching prospect into their rotation who should make a huge impact this season. Their top two starters, James Shields and David Price, can easily win the AL Cy Young this season and are looking to build upon their incredible performances last season. Last season's AL Rookie of the Year, Jeremy Hellickson, is their third starter, and is another young arm who can easily avoid a sophomore slump. Spot starters Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis would easily be quality starters for most of the other teams in baseball, but instead have to battle it out for one of the spots in the Rays rotation.
That's because they have potential superstar and flamethrower Matt Moore joining their already outstanding rotation. Moore is a popular pick to win AL Rookie of the Year this season, and he is a great bet to have the best career out of all the Rays pitchers. Their bullpen also has some quality young arms like Jake McGee and Brandon Gomes, to go along with their reliable set-up man/closer combo in Joel Peralta and Kyle Farnsworth.
The Rays easily have the best rotation in the AL East, and that is what really stands them apart from the other teams in the division. Along with having the best manager in the division in Joe Maddon and a surplus of young talent, the Rays will once again come out on top of the mighty American League East this season.
The Yankees were going through an extremely rare quiet offseason after losing in last year's American League Division Series to the Detroit Tigers. Then, on one night in January, they pulled off one of the most shocking trades in recent memory by trading super-prospect catcher Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi for the Seattle Mariners' young flamethrower Michael Pineda and Jose Campos. Then, later that night, they signed former Los Angeles Dodgers' starting pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, and immediately their biggest weakness became a strength.
However, we all know that the biggest strength has always been the Yankees' offense. The Bombers' did lose one of their veteran leaders and Yankee icons in Jorge Posada, but replaced him at DH with Raul Ibanez, another aging veteran. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez had down seasons last year, and you have to wonder if time is finally catching up with them. While a huge downside to the Yankees lineup is their age, they also have a young AL MVP candidate and the best second baseman in baseball in Robinson Cano. Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira won't wow you with their batting averages, but they should each hit around 35 home runs apiece.
The eccentric Nick Swisher and solid catcher Russell Martin are no weaknesses near the bottom of the order. Then, in the ninth spot right behind Ibanez is the speedster Brett Gardner, who will vie for the most steals in the American League. The Bombers' offense is extremely consistent, and they have too many bats to not be at least a top-five offense. You have to wonder though with very few high average guys in their lineup along with the aging veterans if their offense may take a step back this season.
The major question for the Yankees during the offseason was who could they trust after CC Sabathia. Acquiring Pineda and Kuroda helped their starting pitching a lot, but there are still a lot of questions between the two. Pineda, who will be placed on the D.L. at the beginning of the season with shoulder inflammation, had a very disappointing spring training and his velocity was much lower than expected. Kuroda is switching leagues and is going to the toughest offensive division in baseball. Also, his age is slowly creeping up on him and will he be able to beat AL East hitters as a control pitcher?
They also have veteran Freddy Garcia, and will they be able to get a second miraculous season from a guy who's comeback season may have resulted from actually drinking from the fountain of youth. Then, there's the young and relatively unproven starters in Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova. Hughes has been very inconsistent and injury prone so far in his young career, but clearly has the talent. Nova had a good season last year, but he may not even be in the rotation by the middle of the season. The Yanks still have several questions in their rotation, and while they did improve in starting pitching depth, it's clear that they are far behind the Rays in starting pitching talent. At least they traded colossal disaster A.J. Burnett to the Pirates though.
The Yankees bullpen is another huge strength on the team, especially with the emergence of set-up man David Robinson last year. The Yanks may have overspent on reliever Rafael Soriano last offseason, but they now have two very effective middle inning relievers to lead up to the ageless Mariano Rivera.
The Yankees are still huge favorites to win the World Series this year because of their major improvements in starting pitching, but they do need more young talent. While the Yankees have a lot more postseason experience than the Rays, I think their age will have a huge impact on their regular season. Expect the Yankees to play in the first ever Wild Card game this season.
On Aug. 31 last season, the Red Sox owned the best record in the American League. They had a 1.5-game lead on the Yankees and a nine-game advantage on the Rays. It looked like they were going to fulfill all expectations heading into the season after signing All-Stars Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. Then, the collapse happened. Then, the fried chicken, beer, and video game story got leaked. Then, Terry Francona and Theo Epstein, the greatest manager and general manager in Red Sox history, left the toxic organization. Now, with the emphatic Bobby Valentine taking over as manager and a Theo protégé, Ben Cherington, as the new general manager, the Red Sox are looking for a fresh new identity as World Series contenders.
The top of the lineup for the Red Sox is the best in baseball. Jacoby Ellsbury had a monster breakout season, hitting 32 home runs (after not hitting double-digit home runs in any of his previous seasons) to go along with 39 steals and a .321 batting average. Former American League MVP Dustin Pedroia was one of the few Red Sox who didn't have an awful September, and he also had career highs in both home runs, RBI, and steals. Adrian Gonzalez had a fantastic first season with the Red Sox (although he hit "only" 27 home runs) after being acquired from the Padres and he had a career high in runs and batting average (.338) to go along with 117 RBI. The middle of the order has some questions, but it is still better than most. Kevin Youkilis had an awful, injury-plagued 2011 season, but he looks to bounce back and what better way to do so hitting cleanup in the Red Sox' lineup.
David Ortiz had an incredible comeback season, however very few people expect him to build on last year as he enters this season at 37. Carl Crawford was one of the biggest disappointments last season, and starting the year off on the D.L. because of offseason wrist surgery will not silence his critics in Boston. The once-highly regarded prospect who still has one of the best last names in sports, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, had a promising 2011 season and still has a lot of promise. With all of the potential upside in this lineup and the fact that they play in Fenway Park, a hitter's heaven, it's easy to envision this offense being elite again this season.
The biggest question with this team though is their starting pitching and bullpen. Two of three starting pitchers who were involved in the beer, chicken and video games incident are the top two starters for the Red Sox, Jon Lester and Josh Beckett. Lester had a down season, but he is looking to bounce back especially after a miserable September. Beckett had a great comeback season until his September woes kicked in as well, and he is the only other non-question mark in the Red Sox rotation.
John Lackey, a huge bust so far as a Red Sox and the third starting pitcher involved, will miss the entire 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery. While Lackey is nowhere near the pitcher he was as an Angel as he is with the Sox, he provided the Red Sox with pitching depth that they no longer have. Clay Buchholz is a promising young starter, however his health is a growing concern in the organization. Then, there are the two relievers turned starters as the final two starters in their rotation, Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves. The Red Sox will definitely need to address their lack of depth in their rotation because that could cause them great trouble in the regular season.
Don't forget about the bullpen. The Red Sox lost their mainstay at closer, Jonathan Papelbon to the Phillies, but they gained a young closer in Andrew Bailey from the Athletics. However, Bailey is living up to his injury-prone reputation by undergoing surgery for a thumb ligament and being out indefinitely before the season even started. So, newly acquired reliever Mark Melancon (in a trade involving Jed Lowrie going to the Astros) will most likely open up the season as closer. They also lost their set-up man (Bard) and their most effective middle reliever (Aceves) to the starting rotation. The Red Sox should be very nervous heading into the 2012 season not knowing if they can trust anyone in their bullpen.
While the offense can be the best in baseball if everything goes correctly, they need a lot of luck if they want to make the postseason in the American League with pitching as weak as theirs. With five other stacked teams (Rays, Yankees, Tigers, Angels, Rangers) and other potential surprises (Blue Jays, Indians) for only five playoff spots, the Red Sox will miss the postseason in the first year of the Bobby Valentine experiment.
Ever since Blue Jays' general manager Alex Anthopoulos took over, he has done an extremely impressive job acquiring talent and getting rid of players with awful contracts (most notably, trading Vernon Wells to the Angels last offseason). The Blue Jays also finished with a winning record last season despite playing in baseball's tough division, and it has been speculated by several baseball experts that the Blue Jays would make the postseason if they were in any other division. But do they have what it takes to make the postseason this year despite playing in the AL East?
Despite being accused of their home fans stealing signs from opposing teams and relaying them to the hitters, the Blue Jays still have one of the most powerful offenses in the American League. They have a lot of young players that didn't pan out with their previous organizations, but still have tremendous upside. Two of them are at the top of the order in Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson, two guys that can hit for average, hit for power, and run rather well for middle infielders. Colby Rasmus, who got traded to the Blue Jays for relievers that had a huge impact on last year's St. Louis Cardinals' championship team, has elite potential and is hoping to jumpstart his career in Toronto.
Then, there's the best hitter and the guy who has led baseball the past two years in home runs, Jose Bautista. He was stuck in the minor leagues as a Pittsburgh Pirates, but once the Jays got their hands on him, they changed his swing and the results have been tremendous. The Blue Jays also have young homegrown talent as well, most notably Brett Lawrie, Adam Lind, and J.P. Arencibia. Lawrie made a very impressive mark on baseball after being called up during the 2011 season, hitting nine home runs in just 43 games.
The Blue Jays are looking forward to a Bautista-Lawrie dynamic duo over the next couple of years. A lot of people forget that Lind had a .305-35-114 season in 2009, and while he hasn't come close to that batting average mark since then, the power is still there. And at catcher, there's Arencibia, who is known for two things: his Tim Kurkjian impression and his impressive power for a catcher. Expect big things from this offense this season with all of the young talent they have.
However, the biggest reason why the Blue Jays have not been able to supplant the Yankees, Red Sox, or Rays for a playoff spot this decade has been their pitching. While they have young talent, it just isn't deep enough yet. In their rotation, they have two very promising young starters in Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow. While Romero has now had two very good seasons, Morrow has had mediocre seasons with subpar ERA's and high walk totals despite incredible strikeout numbers. If Morrow can fix his control issues, Romero and Morrow could be a very dangerous duo in the AL East this season.
After that, it gets ugly quickly with pitchers who either haven't been effective or have very little experience in Brett Cecil, Henderson Alvarez and Dustin McGowan. The bullpen looks much improved from last year, led by Anthopoulos' shrewd offseason move of acquiring young White Sox closer Sergio Santos for next to nothing. They also signed former Reds' closer Francisco Cordero and brought back reliable reliever Jason Frasor, to be the set-up guys for Santos. They also signed lefty specialist Darren Oliver. These four new additions should greatly improve a bullpen that tied for the AL lead in blown saves last season with 25.
Despite fixing their bullpen drastically, the Jays still do not have the depth they would like for their starting pitching. Their strongest starting pitching prospects will likely not make an impact until at least next year. While Blue Jays fans should still be extremely optimistic about now and the future, they are still a year away before they reach contender status in the American League.
The Orioles' are the only team in the AL East who have no legitimate shot of competing for a playoff spot, and they probably won't be competing for fourth place in the AL East this year either. The O's have finished in last place for the past four years in the AL East, and there's no evidence that this year will have any sudden change.
The Orioles' offense has a lot of guys who have not lived up to their potential. Two of them are hitting third and fourth in the lineup, Nick Markakis and Adam Jones. After a great sophomore campaign, Markakis has been consistently average, a .290 hitter with mediocre power. Adam Jones, the main piece the O's got when they sent Erik Bedard to the Mariners, had a very good 2011 season, but the question is if he's a franchise cornerstone like he was once believed to be.
Then there's Matt Wieters, the former top catching prospect who was supposed to be a surefire superstar. Wieters took a leap in the right direction last season, but his batting average was still only .262. However, out of the three previously mentioned guys, I like Wieters the most to have a breakout 2012 campaign. At the top of the lineup, they have Brian Roberts, who has yet to show that he can still be a productive leadoff guy after his multiple concussions. Also at the top of the order is JJ Hardy who has a couple of very good seasons under his belt (including last year when he hit 30 home runs, very high number for a shortstop) and is one of the Orioles' best players.
After those five, it gets ugly quickly. Third baseman Mark Reynolds is a huge boom or bust guy, having 37 home runs last season but a putrid .221 average and 196 strikeouts (amazingly, last year was the first time in a full season he did not have at least 200 whiffs). Then, it's Wilson Betemit, Chris Davis, and Endy Chavez at the bottom, and one word to sum those three up is yuck. Especially in the AL East, a team's bottom of the lineup must be strong to compete, and the Orioles' still do not have that offensive depth.
And then there's the Orioles' pitching, which could be the worst in baseball. Outside of the promising young arm of Zach Britton, there's not a lot of upside in this rotation. However, even Britton's rookie campaign didn't fare so well because he's pitching against the toughest competition in baseball and the defense behind him is also amongst the worst in baseball. The other four starters are Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Jake Arrieta, and Tsuyoshi Wada. Or in other words, when an AL East team (or most MLB teams for that matter) plays the O's, the offensive players will be drooling. Also, it doesn't help the O's that their young starting pitchers are incapable of staying healthy. The bullpen isn't much better, consistently being at the top of the AL for highest bullpen ERA and most blown saves.
The Orioles' need to have a major makeover of their organization (especially their pitching) before they can even climb out of last place in their own division. The other four teams are just completely superior to them right now. They do have Buck Showalter though, a manager famous for completely turning around hopeless franchises. I hope the Orioles are patient with Buck though, because it will probably be a couple of years before the Orioles are taken seriously. Expect 100 losses, especially since they are in the toughest division in baseball.