10 Keys to Winning the AL East Title in 2012
Spring Training gets underway this week as teams prepare to make a run for the 2012 World Series. Before that, however, they have to claim the title of division champs. That's no easy feat in the American League East.
At the bottom you have the Baltimore Orioles. Moving on, there's the Toronto Blue Jays who are another solid starting pitcher away from being serious contenders for the Wild Card spot. The Blue Jays are poised to make a Tampa Bay Rays-like leap within the next season or two.
Speaking of the Rays, expect them to do the usual "how are they doing this with these guys?" trick. Big years are expected from the players who made the jump to the majors last season. Also look for Evan Longoria to get back on track.
Next, we have the perennial juggernauts. The long-time rivals. Wolverine and Sabertooth. Bugs and Daffy. Adele and her Ex. Yup, Spring Training means it's time to start up the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox rivalry coverage.
The Yankees went out and revamped their rotation. The Red Sox purged themselves of last year's epic collapse. Now all they have to do is prove it on the field.
Any one of those last three teams can lay claim to the AL East title with the Blue Jays playing the role of spoiler. All those teams need is to have everything fall into place.
Now, here are the 10 keys to winning the AL East.
Gotta Stay Healthy
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This is key for every team, not just the contenders in the AL East. Anyone can have a beast for a team, but if your best players can't play, then you're just not going to win many games.
Injuries have hindered the best of teams and the best of players. The Boston Red Sox struggled with injuries last season, especially when Clay Buchholz went down. The Tampa Bay Rays went through the same thing with Evan Longoria.
Then there's the New York Yankees who have to worry about the aging Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera along with their newly signed 39-year-old, Raul Ibanez.
No season is complete without an injury to a starter. That's a given fact. How the team deals with and recovers from that injury is what separates the good teams from the great teams. Depth is important, but how the other starters step up is probably even more important.
The Dazzling Matt Moore
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The Tampa Bay Rays have boasted one of the league's best, and probably youngest, rotations for a couple of years now. Their rotation gets even better, and younger, with the addition of 22-year-old Matt Moore.
Moore pitched Game 1 of the ALDS against the Texas Rangers and pretty much blew them away. After all, he did only allow one run in 10 innings against them. He also had eight strikeouts in the series.
In the regular season, Moore pitched 9.1 innings, giving up only three runs and striking out 15 batters. Did I mention he's a lefty and can hit 97 mph on the radar gun?
Despite his postseason performance and regular season dominance, Moore will still have to contend for a spot in the starting rotation. The Rays have a lot of good young starting pitching, but Moore's a step above the rest; he'll likely get that spot in the rotation.
The key here, however, if for him to replicate his 2011 performance. The New York Yankees have a better rotation this year and the Boston Red Sox's rotation is ready to erase last year's collapse from everyone's minds.
To have a shot at winning the AL East, the Rays are going to need everything they can get from Matt Moore.
The Return of Clay Buchholz
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Clay Buchholz was doing just fine for the Boston Red Sox. He was their third best pitcher until a stress fracture in his back caused him to miss the rest of the season.
Now he's back and claims to be healthy. That's good news for the Red Sox, and bad news for everyone else.
If Buchholz is healthy and is close to being his old self again, the Red Sox's rotation will be much stronger and dependable. With John Lackey out with Tommy John surgery and Daisuke Matsuzaka coming back from the same procedure, the Red Sox need all the help they can get when it comes to pitching.
Buchholz is poised to be ready by the start of the year which will give the Red Sox a starting three of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. Those three are a little more reliable than the New York Yankee's trio of CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda if only because two of them were rookies last season.
The Red Sox need Buchholz to be healthy and resemble his former self in order to compete.
A-Bombs from A-Rod
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Last season was the first season Alex Rodriguez didn't hit at least 30 home runs since 1997. A-Rod's been battling injuries and last season underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair his knee.
Hopefully that means the New York Yankees will be getting the power-hitting A-Rod instead of the doubles-hitting A-Rod. When Alex Rodriguez is healthy and hitting homers, the Yankees' lineup is a whole lot stronger and scarier to face.
Only Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson hit over 30 home runs last season for the Yankees. With a healthy A-Rod in the middle of the lineup, that'll make the Yankees score an insane amount of runs.
The Yankees have been known for having a power lineup and they still do. If A-Rod can crush 30 homers again, the Yankees will undoubtedly have the strongest and best lineup in baseball.
And that might just be the edge they need.
Carlos Pena's Back in Town
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Speaking of feared lineups, the Tampa Bay Rays don't exactly have one. In fact, I wouldn't exactly call what they have a lineup, per say. Last season, the Rays were 25th in the league in batting average. They did manage to be 15th in runs scored, but I'll attribute that to Joe Maddon more than their lineup.
Beyond Evan Longoria, none of their hitters scream "pitch carefully." Ben Zobrist will be a solid hitter and have another solid year, but I'm not afraid of him. B.J. Upton still hasn't put it together and I'm starting to wonder if he ever will.
In comes Carlos Pena, the last hitter they had who made you think twice about the pitch you were gonna throw. Pena's never had a high average, but he can certainly hit home runs. Hitting next to Longoria in the lineup would make a serious one-two combo.
On top of that, Pena can play some pretty excellent first base, keeping in tradition with Joe Maddon's emphasis on the fundamentals.
Everyone knows that the Rays can pitch. Everyone knows that they can also field. They need to improve on their offense, and Carlos Pena is the first step in doing that.
Can Andrew Bailey Save Boston
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Last September, the Boston Red Sox were losing games like a shark loses teeth. Part of that problem was Jonathan Papelbon, who couldn't quite close games for the Red Sox. And if he did, it was nearly always a nail biter.
Sure, he was a good closer for the Red Sox, but most Red Sox fans I knew always seemed to be undergoing cardiac arrest whenever Papelbon had a 3-2 count. Red Sox fans turned on him even more when he ended their season with that blown save against the Baltimore Orioles and when all the clubhouse stuff went public.
The Red Sox let him leave and brought in Andrew Bailey.
Andrew Bailey was doing a fine job for the Oakland Athletics before injuries put him on the wayside. He has an excellent fastball that can hit 97 and has a curveball and slider to go with it.
Red Sox Nation is hoping that he can be the guy to close out games for them. With the New York Yankees having a fairly stacked bullpen, the Red Sox will need Bailey to do just that.
Michael Pineda Better Be Worth It
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In case you haven't heard, the New York Yankees basically swapped Jesus Montero for Michael "He's Tall" Pineda. At 6'7", Pineda is another tall pitcher the Yankees have in their rotation, but he can also throw.
He has a fastball that will consistently stay in the mid-90s but has been known to touch 99 mph. To go along with that is a slider that is thrown in the mid-80s with a pretty hard break. And Pineda has strong command of both of those pitches.
On paper, Pineda looks too good to be true. However, he struggled after the All-Star break and is likely bound to go through a sophomore slump as most players do. He also showed up to camp overweight and out of shape. Not a good start for him.
Pineda's going to have some questions going into the season, but he'll likely answer them within the first couple of starts. I have no doubt that Pineda will be a future ace but he'll have to get used to Yankee Stadium and the AL East first.
If Pineda can be the pitcher he was in the first half of last season, then the Yankees will be in good shape to win the AL East title.
Solve the B.J. Upton Problem
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B.J. Upton has been in the league since 2004. When he first came up, he was full of potential and still is. There's just the question of whether or not he'll be able to put it together.
Upton has speed, power and has shown that he can hit for average. He's been going through struggles ever since he's been in the big leagues. The Tampa Bay Rays need to figure out what to do with him. Do they keep him thinking he'll be able to solve it, or do they trade him while he still has value?
The Rays can't really go wrong with whatever option they choose. Upton can turn it around and be the player everyone thought he'd be. On the other hand, the Rays can flip him for a piece that can help them right away and be what they thought Upton was going to be.
Either way, the Rays can't wait on Upton forever. The longer they stay hung up on what to do with B.J. Upton, the longer they'll have to wait on winning the AL East.
Carl Crawford Needs to Be Carl Crawford
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When the Boston Red Sox signed Carl Crawford, they didn't expect him to put up numbers such as a .255 batting average, 11 home runs, 65 runs and 18 stolen bases. They expected him to be a catalyst for their offense and to supplement Jacoby Ellsbury at the top of the lineup.
Crawford underwent surgery on his wrist and will not be able to join the team right away. But once he does join, the Red Sox are going to need him to produce. They need Crawford to score runs, steal bases and play excellent defense. If not, the Red Sox lineup will be that much weaker.
The Red Sox, New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays are all just about equal with their pitching in terms of strengths, weaknesses and questions. It'll be their lineups that will set them apart.
Phil Hughes Recovers That Lost Potential
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Even with the recent acquisitions the New York Yankees made to bolster their pitching rotation, there are still some question marks surrounding it.
Will Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda be able to repeat their rookie seasons? Can Hiroki Kuroda pitch in the AL East? How much can CC Sabathia really eat?
The biggest question mark, however, belongs to Phil Hughes. He was once the Yankees' best pitching prospect but has since fallen from that distinction. Injuries and tampering with his role on the pitching staff has caused that fall.
The worst case scenario with Hughes and the Yankees is that they just replace him with Freddy Garcia. The best case scenario is that Hughes becomes that pitcher they thought he'd be.
If everything goes according to plan, the Yankees will have a rotation that goes five deep. That's more than what the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox can say.