2012 MLB Predictions: Why Rays Will Be Surprise Winners in AL East

Shale BriskinContributor IIIApril 3, 2012

2012 MLB Predictions: Why Rays Will Be Surprise Winners in AL East

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    For the past few seasons, the AL East has arguably been the best division in all of baseball. Since 2008, the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays have all been strong contenders for the division crown and three of the best teams in the sport.

    Until this season, only two of them at most would be able to make it to the postseason. However, now that there will be a one-game playoff to determine each wild-card winner, all three of these teams could get into the playoffs.

    Furthermore, the Blue Jays have improved a lot this offseason, and there is a good chance that they could really be in the mix for a postseason spot of their own. With this being said, this division race will be very tough and competitive for all four teams. It will take a lot for each of them to come out on top.

    Despite the competitive division, the Yankees are the clear-cut favorites. Their starting rotation is certainly in better shape now than it was in 2011, but the lineup is aging, and at some point, closer Mariano Rivera will deteriorate in what will probably be his final season in the major leagues.

    While the Yankees do have an improved pitching staff, it's still not the same as that of the Rays, who have arguably the best all-around young pitching rotation in baseball. The Rays' lineup is also young, but has several proven players who can lead the way.

    The only big question for the Rays is their bullpen. But if the starters give six, seven or even eight innings a game and they get a decent amount of run support, there won't be much for the bullpen to do. As a result, the Rays should have just as much of a chance to win the AL East as the Yankees.

    As for the Orioles, their lineup will be relatively solid, but there are way too many questions in their pitching staff to even think that there is a chance they do not finish in a distant fifth place.

    Here are five reasons why the Rays will surprise many people and win the AL East this year.

1. The Rays' Starting Rotation Is by Far the Best in the Division

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    The Rays' rotation might even be considered the best in all of baseball. All five pitchers have the potential to be perennial All-Stars. There is every reason to believe that the Rays' pitching will keep them in every game. Their pitching is just that good.

    The rotation is led by co-aces David Price and James Shields. After going 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA in 2010, Price faltered a bit last year, finishing 12-13 despite a 3.49 ERA. He threw 224.1 innings and struck out 218 batters, so it's quite obvious that he remains one of the most powerful pitchers in the game.

    Hopefully, with a little more run support, Price can bounce back to be the dominant pitcher he was in 2010. The Rays should expect 15-18 wins and an ERA below 3.00 this season from Price, who will try to fix his mechanics and contend for the AL Cy Young Award.

    Shields had a great season last year. Coming off a 2010 season that saw his ERA balloon to 5.18 and his record fall to 13-15, Shields went 16-12 with a 2.82 ERA in 2011. But those numbers do not do justice to the stellar season he had.

    He threw a career-high 249.1 innings and led all of baseball with 11 complete games. He also had 225 strikeouts and finished a distant third in the AL Cy Young voting behind Jered Weaver of the Angels, and the overwhelming winner, Justin Verlander of the Tigers.

    Some may say that Shields was overworked last year and could get fatigued midway through this season. But he is young enough that he should be able to sustain that same level this season. With the similar numbers he will likely put up, Shields could contend for a Cy Young Award as well.

    2011 AL Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson will be the No. 3 starter in the Rays' rotation. In his rookie campaign, Hellickson went 13-10 with a 2.95 ERA. His other numbers were not up to par with those of Price and Shields. But Hellickson turned in a fine season, and he figures to do nothing but improve.

    Following Hellickson will be another potential AL Rookie of the Year in Matt Moore, who is heavily favored to win the award this year. Moore came up as a September call-up last season. In just his second career start, which happened to occur in the ALDS against the Rangers, Moore pitched seven scoreless innings and only gave up two hits.

    If he can pitch that well in his first stint in the major leagues, there is every reason to believe that Moore will become another dependable starter for the Rays.

    Finally, the fifth spot will be held down by Jeff Niemann, who beat out teammate Wade Davis for the final spot. Niemann finished 11-7 with a 4.06 ERA last season. He is as good of a fifth starter as there is in baseball. He will be expected to have another season similar to his past three. Of course, if he struggles, the Rays could always revert to Davis, who pitched just as well as Niemann last year.

2. The Rays' Lineup Will Improve and Be One of the Better Offenses in the League

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    While the Rays' rotation is clearly the heart and soul of the team's success, their offense should not be taken lightly. They still have one of the best third basemen in baseball in Evan Longoria, who is only going to get better each year. They also have one of the better young center fielders in B.J. Upton, who is poised to improve his low batting average and have a great season, plus maybe the best utility player in baseball in Ben Zobrist, who will play second base this year.

    Those three hitters are the core of the Rays' offense, but they have a few other solid players as well. The young Desmond Jennings will start in left field and hopes to live to expectations. He could become an All-Star outfielder as soon as this season. He hit 10 home runs last season in just 247 at-bats. If he produces at the same rate over a full season, he could definitely become a 25-30 home- run hitter.

    Rounding out the Rays' outfield is the left-handed hitting Matt Joyce, who put up solid numbers last year, including 19 home runs and 75 RBI. There is a good chance that those numbers could increase this season.

    Most of the Rays' lineup is rather young, but they brought in two veteran hitters to provide more power and leadership. After spending just one season with the Cubs, first baseman Carlos Pena returned to the Rays, whom he played for from 2007-2010. He will return to being the Rays' first baseman and cleanup hitter.

    As usual, Pena will provide a lot of power, but not a lot of hits. He is a genuine all-or-nothing hitter. In other words, most of his at-bats will either result in a home run or a strikeout. Hopefully, he can cut down on the strikeouts and improve his OBP. This would only help the Rays' offense improve even more.

    The Rays also brought in the veteran Luke Scott to be their new DH. He did not play a full season last year due to injuries, but averaged 25 home runs a season between 2008-2010 as a member of the Orioles. If he stays healthy, Scott could add more power to the Rays' lineup and will hopefully hit as well as he did in 2010 when he batted .284 in 517 at-bats.

    The only noticeable offensive holes for the Rays are at shortstop and catcher. Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez have been battling all spring to be the Rays' shortstop. It's definitely possible that they could play in a platoon, being that both will not provide much offense, but will provide similar defensive abilities.

    As for the catching situation, the Rays will have the veteran Jose Molina start this year, with Jose Lobaton as the backup. Molina's impact will be on defense, as he will help the Rays' great rotation pitch well. His defensive skills and throwing arm are among the best in the game.

    He will not provide as much offense, but with the rest of the Rays' lineup shaped as it is, the Rays will be fine even if Molina does not hit well.

    The Rays' lineup may not cause that much fear in opposing pitching staffs, but it will certainly provide enough run support to ensure more wins for all the pitchers.

3. The Yankees' Age Will Really Start to Show This Year

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    Despite having the oldest lineup and probably the oldest team in the league, the Yankees once again are widely considered the favorites to win the AL East. And with the track record the Yankees have had since 1995, that alone is enough proof that the Yankees should always be considered favorites now. However, even if their rotation is much better than it was in 2011, the aging will catch up to the team itself.

    The Yankees still have one of the most powerful lineups around. Robinson Cano has turned himself into the best second baseman in the game, while center fielder Curtis Granderson turned in a great season last year. Left fielder Brett Gardner has already become one of the most lethal base-stealing threats and has averaged 48 stolen bases within the past two seasons. Right fielder Nick Swisher turned in another solid season last year and first baseman Mark Teixeira hit 39 home runs and drove in 111 RBI, despite a .248 average. Catcher Russell Martin had a decent year in his first season as a Yankee. The Yankees became confident enough in him to trade away top prospect Jesus Montero.

    In order to ensure themselves of a definite postseason berth, Cano and Teixeira will have to carry the offense once again and Teixeira in particular will have to hit more consistently and avoid the notable slow start that has plagued him for years.

    On the other hand, there should be two huge concerns in the Yankees' lineup. One of them is shortstop Derek Jeter, who is now well past his prime and is not the same kind of player he once was. He will still bat over .270 and give the occasional highlight reel in the field, but age will really catch up to him now, as already evidenced by his decreased range. In other words, don't expect too much from Jeter for the rest of his career.

    The biggest question mark though for the Yankees is their $277 million third baseman, Alex Rodriguez. With all the injuries he has had in the past few years, it is as obvious as ever that Rodriguez is nearing the end of his career and he will likely be forced to become a DH as soon as sometime this season. 2011 was the first full season in his career in which he did not hit over 20 home runs, and the first season since 1997 in which he did not hit at least 30 home runs. The number will not improve anymore for the 36-year-old slugger. If the Yankees are really going to count on him to help lead the team this year, they are a big mistake. Unfortunately for them, the contract is already there and they now have to live with it.

    As for the pitching staff, CC Sabathia should turn in another great season, while the young Michael Pineda and veteran Hiroki Kuroda will be dependable No. 2 and 3 starters for the team. Ivan Nova, who was one of the top rookie pitchers last year should look to build upon his rookie success and show that his rookie season was not a fluke. The final spot of course will go to either Phil Hughes or Freddy Garcia. Hughes might be more suited to be a reliever, but with Garcia being a time bomb as far as his health goes, they will be better off with Hughes in the rotation. Overall, the Yankees' rotation should perform a lot better this year, but a lot will need to go right for the Yankees to be in good shape by the middle of August.

    Finally, the ageless Mariano Rivera is likely to pitch his final season in the major leagues. His health has been amazing for the most part, but at his age, injuries could occur at any given point. It's important for Rivera to stay healthy because if he gets hurt, the Yankees would be forced to use either Rafael Soriano or David Robertson as the new closer, and that would be a very tough decision for manager Joe Girardi.

    All in all, the Yankees will contend and make the postseason this year, one way or another. However, their aging veterans and Teixeira's consistency at the plate will play huge roles as to whether they win the AL East division title or not.

4. The Red Sox Will Not Improve Dramatically in Just One Season

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    After experiencing the worst ever collapse in baseball history, the Red Sox are likely to try very hard to contend and make up for the disappointing finish they had last year. They retooled the front office by bringing in Ben Sherington as the new general manager and Bobby Valentine as the new manager. They also traded for Andrew Bailey to replace Jonathan Papelbon as the closer. Other than those moves, plus the retirements of long time Red Sox stars Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield, the Red Sox' roster will pretty much be the same as before.

    The Red Sox' offense was led by Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia. All three should have similar seasons in 2012, as they lead the Red Sox offense into postseason contention once again. The Red Sox though will need a much better season from Carl Crawford in order to improve in the standings. He was a major disappointment for the Red Sox last year and he has to bounce back in order for the Red Sox to win more. The rest of the Red Sox' offense should provide numbers good enough to help the star hitters score a good number of runs a game.

    As for pitching, the Red Sox' rotation, and mainly co-aces Josh Beckett and Jon Lester were widely criticized for their lifestyle choices last season, but both are now more determined than ever before to have great seasons and help the Red Sox win more. Lester, for one is due to win an AL Cy Young Award in the near future. The rest of the rotation has issues though.

    Clay Buchholz was injured for a good chunk of the 2011 season and only made 14 starts. The Red Sox will need a full season from him to get back to the postseason. Furthermore, the Daniel Bard experiment could be a hit or miss and the Red Sox will have to hope that it works because the veteran Daisuke Matsuzaka will miss part of the season while recovering from injuries. Felix Doubront as the fifth starter could also be a hit or miss. While Beckett and Lester will both pitch well with the chips on their shoulders, the Red Sox will need their other starters to pitch well enough to win most of their starts.

    In the bullpen, Andrew Bailey has been a solid closer for a few seasons now, but it will be interesting to see how he pitches in a big market city like Boston. The Red Sox improved their bullpen depth even further by acquiring Mark Melancon to fill Bard's old spot as the set-up man. The Red Sox now have one of the best overall bullpens in the game, so if the back end of the starting rotation can pitch well enough for around six innings, the bullpen should be able to take good control of the last three innings. Again, this will be asking a lot out of Bailey, who has yet to prove himself in an environment much different than it was for him as a member of the A's.

    The Red Sox are obviously poised to get back to the playoffs, but there are simply a few too many question marks for them to be considered the favorite to win the AL East.

5. The Blue Jays Will Improve, but They Still Need More Pitching

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    For years, the Blue Jays have been a solid team, but they happen to be stuck in the same division as the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays. As a result, they have consistently finished in 4th place for the past four seasons.

    The Blue Jays' lineup is still led by one of the best sluggers in baseball in Jose Bautista, who is poised to continue hitting as well as he has in the past two years. First baseman Adam Lind, center fielder Colby Rasmus, second baseman Kelly Johnson, shortstop Yunel Escobar, and outfielder Rajai Davis are all solid players as well and should help Bautista lead the Jays' offense as one of the most explosive in the league. Even the Jays' bench is rather solid, which includes veterans Ben Francisco and Omar Vizquel, plus Edwin Encarnacion as the DH.

    The difference-maker in the lineup though will be rookie third baseman Brett Lawrie, who has the potential to become of the best at his position. He is a great hitter with tremendous power and the thought of both him and Bautista hitting many home runs each season could strike fear in some opposing pitchers. If Lawrie is healthy and hitting as well as he is expected to, the Jays could provide great run support for their pitchers. Another issue for the Jays is whether catcher J.P. Arencibia can raise his average and hit better this season. He hit 23 home runs and drove in 78 RBI, but only batted .220 and that number needs to go up in order to help the Jays win more.

    Despite the solid offense they have, the Jays' pitching staff has a big noticeable hole in the back end of their rotation. The rotation is led by Ricky Romero, who surprised many people with the great season he had in 2011. He went 15-11 with a 2.92 ERA. Look for Romero to have even better season as he continues to develop into one of the more elite left-handed starters. Brandon Morrow's numbers faltered a bit last year and if the Jays really want to contend, he will need to have a big season as well.

    Aside from Romero and Morrow, the rest of the Jays' rotation has some big question marks. Kyle Drabek had a 6.06 ERA in 14 starts, so he will need to have a much better season for the Jays to go anywhere. Henderson Alvarez and Joel Carreno have made a combined 11 major league starts, all of which occurred in 2011. The Jays are apparently very confident in both of them, so Alvarez and Carreno will need to pitch well so that the Jays can keep up with their division rivals. In case at least one of Alvarez or Carreno do not pitch particularly well, the Jays will also need to hope that Dustin McGowan stays healthy and bounces back to the pitcher he was in 2007 that won 12 games.

    The one area that the Jays improved significantly was their bullpen. They now have not just one, but two solid closers in Francisco Cordero and Sergio Santos. Santos is almost certainly going to be the closer, with Cordero as a top set-up man, but regardless, the Jays' bullpen looks a lot better now and if the starters can give six or seven innings a game, Cordero and Santos should be able to close it out. Again, the Jays' success overall really depends on whether the back end of the rotation pitches well enough to give the ball to Cordero and Santos, who both have had solid track records as closers over the years.