With all due respect to the Tampa Bay Rays, the two favorites are finally in the building—the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.
I feel a little bad about doing this because it's one of the primary reasons people really hate these two franchises—they get all the hype no matter how recent and thunderous their failures.
Boston lost the American League East and the AL Championship Series to Tampa in 2008. New York failed to even qualify for the playoffs. Yet, here I am, touting both as the kings of the hill with no reason except offseason headlines.
After all, Tampa improved and was better than both last year. The difference is the Rays' improvement flew under the radar because it wasn't as substantial or expensive. But it didn't need to be.
Yet it's impossible and foolish to ignore what the other two teams did. Especially the Yankees.
The Bronx Bombers have always spent money in the offseason, but this winter's orgy of expenditure was embarrassing even by their standards. It was different in another way, too—the money was spent wisely.
Not necessarily in the bang-for-buck sense as the contracts are obviously bloated, but in terms of addressing the most crucial needs.
For whatever reason, recent years saw New York taking foolish gambles on flash-in-the-pan hurlers while bringing aboard expensive-but-proven bats. Lots of them. That didn't work and it seems the Yanks finally got the memo—better late than never.
You and I might think NY overpaid for CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. We're probably right, but they were arguably the two best pitchers on the market and both represent drastic upgrades. That makes them great signings for a franchise free to print its own money.
On the other side of the coin, offense was rarely the problem in New York.
Still, it was starting to show its age in '08, so the Yankees went out and grabbed the best young hitter on the market. Instead of grabbing a player that had already peaked (Manny Ramirez), they grabbed a guy still on the rise (Mark Teixeira) who could also help in other areas, i.e. with his glove.
At a weak position to boot.
With those pieces added to an already formidable roster, New York is built for regular and postseason dominance. Just like Boston. And that should make for an intriguing playoff series because I expect both to be there.
Here's how the Yanks figure to take the field on Opening Day.
Projected starting lineup
First base—Mark Teixeira
Second base—Robinson Cano
Third base—Cody Ransom/Angel Berroa
Left field—Johnny Damon
Center field—Brett Gardner
Right field—Xavier Nady
Designated hitter—Hideki Matsui/Nick Swisher
Once this lineup gets Alex Rodriguez back, Mr. April-Through-July is gonna turn a scary order into a white-knuckle affair for any pitcher in baseball. Until then, though, other Bombers will have to step up because neither Ransom nor Berroa is a solution.
Either guy actually might make the problem worse. For whatever reason, New York seems to really like Ransom. Uh...this guy got more than his fair shake with SF and couldn't cut it. Now he's supposed to adequately fill in for one of the best players in baseball (non-clutch division)?
I don't think so.
And what the hell happened to Melky Cabrera? Good grief, Gardner's got a terrific glove, a ton of speed, but he doesn't have the upside Melky was thought to have.
Cabrera should make up part of the bench with Jose Molina, whoever the odd man out of the platoon is, and possibly two of New York's prized offensive prospects.
Baseball America ranks 22-year-old outfielder Austin Jackson as the No. 36 blue-chipper in all of baseball. He's in camp, as is 19-year-old catcher Jesus Montero. Montero's ranked No. 38.
The outfield is full up, and NY has Posada slated to catch, but some of the parts in the OF are showing their wear as much as Posada, so the young options may come in handy.
Montero is scorching the ball, while Jackson is holding his own.
Ace—CC Sabathia (L)
Second spot—A.J. Burnett (R)
Third spot—Chien-Mien Wang (R)
Fourth spot—Andy Pettitte (L)
Fifth spot—Joba Chamberlain (R)
Again, there's a little bit of limbo here. It seems the Yankees are kicking around the idea of using Joba as the primary setup guy for Mariano Rivera. Part of it would seem to be based on how dominant Chamberlain was in the role during his stint in the 'pen.
The other part would be the options in both areas. While New York's bullpen isn't terrible, it's thinner than the starting rotation.
The Yankees have youngsters Phil Coke (27 in July), Alfredo Aceves (26), Ian Kennedy (24), and Phil Hughes (23 in June) up with the Big Club for Spring Training. All are/were top prospects in the Yankee organization, but none has managed to translate his success to the Major League level.
Coke and Aceves are probably headed for the 'pen while Kennedy and Hughes will probably start in the minors. Everyone but Coke is seeing some starting action thus far, so the matter's still not decided.
Top prospect Andrew Brackman is also in camp, but the 23-year-old is working back from Tommy John surgery, so he'll be brought along slowly.
If one of those guys can finally break through in the pros, Joba may find himself in the eighth inning.
Closer—Mariano Rivera (R)
Set-up—Damaso Marte (L)
Set-up—Jonathan Albaladejo (R)
Set-up—Edwar Ramirez (R)
Set-up—Jose Veras (R)
Set-up—Brian Bruney (L)
There's talent oozing off this roster, but that's the case every year, so what to make of it?
As I said, offense isn't usually the problem, and 2009 shouldn't be any different despite the brief absence of A-Rod.
Jorge Posada is getting/has gotten old, and he probably won't see a .330 average ever again, but he's still gonna produce like one of the best catchers in baseball when healthy. He wasn't healthy in 2008, so it's tough to tell what he'll have at 37 this year.
But a return to his career average of about a .280 average with 20 home runs seems reasonable.
There's no telling what the glare of New York will do to Mark Teixeira, but the guy seems like a flatliner to me, so I don't expect it to make much difference. Set to turn 29 in April, Tex put up a .308 average with 41 doubles, 33 HRs, 102 runs scored, 121 runs batted in, a .410 on-base percentage, and a .962 OPS.
Plus he picks it clean at first so, yeah, he should help.
It'll be interesting to see what a full year of Xavier Nady will be like in NYC (if he's around for the full year). His 2008 line is a little misleading because the .305 average, 37 doubles, 25 bombs, 76 runs, 97 RBI, .357 OBP, and .867 OPS were amassed between two teams. With the Pittsburgh Pirates, Nady hit for considerably higher average while the power was relatively consistent.
Nady's a free agent after this year and plays amidst a surplus of talent, so he may be moved and probably will be if the decrease in production was something more than an adjustment period.
The home crowd won't like this, but Derek Jeter is in steady decline at the age 34 (35 in June). His numbers are tapering off, as is his defense, and the combination of speed/power has become pedestrian. But he's still one of the best in the game—2008 saw a .300 average, 25 doubles, 11 HRs, 88 runs, 69 RBI, 11 stolen bases, a .363 OBP, and a .771 OPS.
Those are good numbers in a vacuum, but they are even more significant coming from your shortstop captain. And the guy is still clutch—I'd feel fine having him up there in a big at-bat.
The rest of the picture is a little less rosy.
Robinson Cano showed substantial regression in 2008 and now he's dinged up, scheduled for a shoulder MRI. That's bad news; the good news is the kid's still only 26 and '08 was the first lateral step in his career, so there remains plenty of reason for optimism.
Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui are both old and getting older, yet are a tale of two players.
Damon is aging gracefully. His skills/health are eroding at a glacial pace—.303 with 27 doubles, 17 HRs, 95 runs, 71 RBI, 29 swipes, a .375 OBP, and (prepare yourself) an .836 OPS. How can that slappy SOB have an OPS so high? Damn.
Considering Damon is 35, those numbers are incredibly consistent with his career averages.
Matsui is the polar opposite. Despite being younger, Godzilla's missed basically two of the last three seasons with injury. This latest one was apparently serious enough to end his days in the outfield, so it's DH or bust for him. Luckily, the Yankees have a nice fallback position in Nick Swisher.
Although Swish probably failed to hit his weight in 2008, his OBP was a very respectable .332. Toss in the 24 taters and 21 doubles, and last season doesn't look quite so ugly for the 28-year-old. Especially since that's gotta be the worst-case scenario for him.
I expect Swisher to even see some time in center field if he can raise his average a touch.
And there's always the return of Rodriguez and his ~40 bombs, 100+ RBI, .300+ average.
But it all comes down to the pitching for New York. If the offseason acquisitions take to their new surroundings, this team is gonna be in it 'til the end.
The big fella Sabathia isn't really the big question. Despite a slow start to spring, the 28-year-old lefty has proven that bright lights don't bother him. With all eyes on him last year, CC delivered one of the most impressive finishing flourishes we've seen in recent years and delivered the Milwaukee Brewers to the Promised Land.
The number of innings and shaky showings in the playoffs raise some small flags, but I wouldn't be too concerned.
I don't pay much attention to pitching stats because a couple bad outings can skew the picture hopelessly, but look at CC's 2008 line—17-10 with a 2.70 earned run average, 1.11 WHIP, 251 Ks against 59 walks, 19 HRs surrendered, 253 innings pitched, 10 complete games, and five shutouts.
Holy lord. A 1.11 WHIP and only 19 homers allowed in 253 IP? TEN complete games? FIVE shutouts? Whoa, whoa, whoa, WHOA.
And, yet, A.J. Burnett may be the make-or-break guy.
If he can harness his K-per-inning stuff and keep his wildness to a minimum, New York will have a dynamite one-two punch at the top of the rotation. Of course, he must also stay healthy.
With those two guys at the top, it makes the rest of the rotation ridiculous.
Chien-Ming Wang is a legit ace even if he wasn't the best to wear that moniker. He's coming back from a serious injury, but the guy never relied on amazing stuff, so any edge lost to injury is less a cause for concern. As long as his mechanics are cool, he should be the same pitcher.
That means an arguable ace will be the No. 3 guy. Nice.
Andy Pettitte is on the back nine of his career, but he's still one of the craftiest lefties in the game and an established winner. He's a big game pitcher, and you need those when you get to the postseason.
The fifth spot should go to Joba Chamberlain, but (as I said above) it might not be etched in stone. Regardless, the fifth spot will be in good hands as far as No. 5s go.
As long as the timeless wonder (Mariano Rivera) keeps going, the Yankee bullpen will never be in a world of hurt. But it's a tad thin, and Rivera does turn 40 in November, so his age has gotta catch up with him sometime, right?
Of course, Mariano's dominated this long with essentially one pitch and 2008 was arguably his best year so far—39 for 40 in save opportunities, 0.67 WHIP, 1.40 ERA, 77 Ks against six walks, and four big flies allowed in 70+ IP.
With one pitch at the age of 38. Nothing about the guy has ever made any sense.
The rest of the arms in the 'pen are good and the young kids should lift the overall level of stuff, but none is worthy of being Rivera's primary caddy at this point—hence the debate about Joba. They are either too inconsistent, too young, too unproven, or a combination of all three.
Despite the vulnerability in the 'pen, this is probably the best team in Major League Baseball. Even with some guys missing due to injury and some older pieces in decline, the roster is filled to the brim with ability and potential.
The games are not played on paper. They're played in real life and, for the Yankees, under intense scrutiny. That scrutiny should be amped up to a whole new level after the eventful offseason, new stadium, and A-Rod "revelation."
With so much firepower, I don't think anything will keep them from at least the AL Wild Card. It will take the perfect storm of adversarial conditions to prevent the New York Yankees from grabbing their 27th World Championship.
I expect that scrutiny, the talent on Boston's roster, and the lack of pressure on the Beantown nine by association to be exactly that.
And I expect the Yankee renaissance to end in the ALCS and at the hands of those Red Sox.