Onto the final third of the league—the most potent division and the one in which I will probably receive the greatest amount of disdain for my predictions. In fact, I may lose my badge as baseball writer/blogger altogether.
This is a division that, in my opinion, is in a state of drastic change. With the Orioles all but written off for the year, this is still a deep and strong division with four teams that could win any of baseball's other five divisions.
I hope I haven’t already lost my readers, but hear me out. There is not another team in the division, let alone the league that has as much potential as the Rays. Top to bottom, the team has breakout candidates and can match up player for player with any team in the league.
With a little bit of luck, this team should be the best team in baseball. Furthermore, consider that the Rays used BJ Upton at second base for 48 games in 2007, which essentially single handedly led to the Devil Rays having the worst defensive efficiency in the majors.
Also, consider the depth of the Rays farm system. With youngsters at essentially every spot in the lineup, the club can afford to make a major trade this season to fill a team need.
In fact, if a CC Sabathia becomes available on the open market, is there another team with more trading chips than the Rays?
The bottom of the rotation is more uncertain due to the rawness of pitchers. As is, I am uncertain how things will shake out, but either way, the pitchers taking up the last two spots in the rotation should be at least league average when compared to other pitchers at their places in the rotation. Sonnanstine and Howell would be my picks, although both would be on a short leash.
The bullpen should be much stronger in 2007 with the addition of Percival. I also think Edwin Jackson should be given an extended look in the seventh inning, and Percival should be his mentor. The kid has the stuff; he is just erratic and could probably use a positive role model.
This is not the Rays strongest area but, as I mentioned, they have the depth in the minor league system to make moves. I wonder how long the Rocks hang on to Fuentes?
Offensively the Rays have enormous potential.
Navarro is on the cusp of great things in my opinion and should really help the team develop. It is only a matter of time before Evan Longoria is the everyday guy at the hot corner. While he may be a year or two from being David Wright, he’s infinitely better than what the Rays had at the position in 2007.
In fact, Longoria’s presence and the addition of Bartlett will make the Rays infield solid both defensively and offensively. Also look for Crawford and Upton to be among the best outfielders (again both defensively and offensively) in the American League.
Breakout Candidate: Dioner Navarro
I wrote about him at length at Baseball Digest Daily, and my opinion still stands. Navarro is having an excellent spring and looks to be ready to build off of a solid 2007 second half.
Major Addition: Matt Garza
The Rays haven’t had the best luck developing starting pitchers, and Garza has the ability to be an ace. He will be the number three guy in Tampa and won’t be relied on heavily to contribute what he is capable of doing.
It sounds as if Rocco’s career is over, and he wasn’t that much assistance in 2007, but the team was counting on him to help in the outfield in 2008. In fact, I ascertain that much of the reason the Rays were willing to let Dukes go (personality issues aside) was the thinking that the outfield would be too crowded in 2008.
Hopefully my analysis of the Rays saved me to this point, but hear me out.
The Jays suffered a lot of major injuries and under-performance in 2007, yet only finished 13 games out of first in the league. Comparatively, the Red Sox had an essentially perfect season and only tied the Indians.
Furthermore, the Jays were 9-9 against the Sox and 6-10 against the Yankees. Give them a winning record against either team and they are a 90-win team. Take away a few victories from the Yanks and Sox and the Jays are in the playoffs.
I am predicting that the Jays will be the 2008 AL Wild Card team.
The rotation is in tact and should provide the same, if not better numbers as 2007 (when they finished tied for seventh in starter ERA). Consider now that McGowan and Marcum have room to improve. Additionally Halladay and Burnett have better seasons in them then they displayed last year.
Could this be the American League's best division? Maybe with a trade for an expiring starter, the Jays could stabilize the final spot in the rotation. Let us also remember the awful Ohka, Zambrano, and Kennedy trials from 2007. At worst, the number five spot this year will equal last year's.
The bullpen finished third in the majors in ERA.
BJ Ryan is returning and looks strong in Spring Training. His injury in 2007 ended up being a blessing in disguise, as it allowed young pitchers such as Downs and Accardo to show their dependability. While the loss of Jansen will definitely be felt, it is softened by the fact that Ryan has returned.
Look for the Jays to be a vastly superior team in 2008 than they were in 2007.
Vernon Wells should be more determined than ever to prove that the big contract he received last winter was not a waste. Frank Thomas and Lyle Overbay both vastly underperformed last year, so one can look forward to bounce-back seasons from that duo.
Rios is a player who is still coming into his own and the left field platoon, while terrible in the field, should provide the same if not superior offensive punch as 2007. I also anticipate that Adam Lind will be moved at some point this season to help fill whatever void the Jays may have.
Breakout Candidate: Dustin McGowan
The hard throwing righty really turned things on in the second half of last season. He helped himself out by shaving off some walks in the second half, as well as adding a substantial amount to his strikeouts.
If he can maintain the batted ball data from a year ago, he will be a real surprise in 2008.
Major Addition: Scott Rolen
Despite fracturing a finger that will keep him out of the Jays lineup for the first month and a bit of the season, Rolen’s presence will greatly improve the infield defense. Although…
Major Subtraction: Troy Glaus
The Jays are going to take a big hit offensively here as Rolen is not the powerful hitter that Glaus is. Taking that kind of power out of the lineup may hurt the Jays as they will have to rely on a lot of singles and doubles to score runs.
3. New York Yankees
I am ranking the Yanks as my third best team in the American League East with not much of a chance at making the playoffs. Their rotation is in shambles, as it is yet another year older at the top. Their hitting is as good as the Tigers, but substantially older and thus likely to collapse.
Unfortunately, I am expecting a major regression for the Yankees.
As I mentioned, the rotation is in shambles. While I am a huge fan of Phil Hughes, I honestly don’t see him as being much more then a third starter this year.
With that in mind, I also see him as far and away the best starter the Yankees have this year. For Yankee fans who thought last year was tough going to their 12th, 13th, and 14th starters, 2008 will prove to be just as painful.
Neither Mussina nor Pettitte have what it takes to be a top of the rotation starter for 30+ starts. If the Yankees expect to compete, they are going to have to tap back into their farm system. I’m also not a fan of Wang, unless his new pitches are all that.
The bullpen will be strong with Chamberlain and Rivera, and Edwar Ramirez is a guy I really like, despite the fact that he is surprisingly old! But how much more can the Yankees expect LaTroy Hawkins or Kyle Farnsworth to have left?
That said, the Yankees are going to have a lot of ‘white knuckle’ games as the rotation is not capable of going deep into games and the bullpen is not stocked with players to get the game into the eighth for Chamberlain.
Look out for Yankees fans to scream for bullpen help.
Offensively this team is stacked. One can make an argument that they still have a Hall of Famer at every position. The bench is relatively deep with extraordinarily flexible hitters.
In fact, I also question what kind of attitude Alex Rodriguez will bring to the table now that he is no longer playing for an extension. The team will be alright, but don’t expect any one of the aforementioned seven to accomplish what they did in 2007.
Breakout Candidate: Edwar Ramirez
Despite the fact that he doesn’t really bring it, Edwar has an outstanding strikeout rate of 13.29 per nine innings (good for the best strikeout rate among pitchers with at least 20 innings).
If Edwar could find a way to more consistently be in the strike zone, there is no way he wouldn’t solidify the Yankees bullpen and make a Joba-to-starter move much easier to swallow.
Major Addition: NONE!
Major Subtraction: Roger Clemens
While his stint with the Yanks was not as successful as he would have liked (or as the Yankees were paying him), he still pushes pitchers up the pecking order and takes away some of the team depth.
4. Boston Red Sox
While this may come as a huge slap in the face, the Red Sox scream ‘injury trouble’ to me from top to bottom. Even in areas where they appear safe, the club has player’s who so overachieved that regression is actually too obvious of a conclusion.
Too many things fell in place for the Red Sox—this season, everything is simply going to collapse. However, I am still expecting 80+ wins out of the club.
The rotation owns the No. 1 and No. 22 most abused pitchers from 2007 in Matsuzaka and Beckett respectively. Beckett already had a tendency of being brittle and is struggling to be healthy to this point in Spring Training.
Matsuzaka is in an entirely new world in North American baseball. Whether or not Dice-K's second half was a sign of things to come, or simply a small sample size and an aberration to the bigger picture is yet to be determined. But his walk rate and drop in strikeouts over the second half has got to be alarming for any fan of the Sox.
The rotation will also count on a pair of youngsters in the place of Curt Schilling. While Schilling did not have the greatest season in 2007, it is tough to imagine a rookie performing better then he did at Fenway.
Hideki Okajima is not a quality relief pitcher. While many may argue with this assertion due to his performance in 2007, I am willing to go out and state that his numbers were directly related to a unique delivery that confused American League hitters for the first half of the season.
David Aardsma is a guy I anticipate will take over a meaningful role within the bullpen and be a name Red Sox Nation remembers.
The Red Sox hitters are efficient and play their required roles to perfection. The club though, is extremely thin and cannot afford an injury to any one of its key players.
I don’t imagine the Red Sox can go another season without suffering a major injury to either of their aging sluggers, Ortiz or Ramirez. As is, both Lugo and Drew are hurt and their backups are less than stellar. Outside of that, the youth and potential is far and few between.
Breakout Candidate: Manny Delcarmen
Everyone expects that it is only a matter of time before Jonathan Papelbon’s arm falls off. Delcarmen is the best choice and will be a major factor in the Sox bullpen long term.
Major Addition: NONE!
This roster is essentially the same one as 2007’s.
Major Subtraction: NONE!
5. Baltimore Orioles
Just because I have the Orioles ranked as the fifth best team in the division does not mean I do not like this team. The club finally has a direction and it is a fairly strong one.
The Minor League system is developing and the core of young players is impressive. The Tejada and Bedard trades have supplied the team with a surplus of arms and a future superstar. Moving Brian Roberts is next on the agenda and presumably is only a matter of time away.
The rotation is youthful and has a nice amount of potential. Watching the kids warm up, one would want this starting five over any one else’s.
Jeremy Guthrie throws hard and he keeps it in the strike zone. I do not believe last year scratched the surface on the once-top prospect's potential.
Additionally, how long is it before Daniel Cabrera figures things out? When he is on, good contact is nearly impossible to make. The problem is, he is rarely on and his time with the Orioles has to be running out.
Cross your fingers Orioles fans. Watch out for Adam Loewen!
My boy Fernando Cabrera seems to have the Cabrera bug—outstanding stuff, terrible pitcher. Once upon a time, he had the biggest swing and miss ratio in the league.
The rest of the bullpen is pieced together—some expensive parts, other youngsters with that "P" word. James Hoey is one of those guys with potential. After a spectacular minor league career, he has become extremely hittable and less capable of striking hitters out. In other words, this isn’t a terrible bullpen; rather, it’s one that is perfectly suited for a club like this.
Offensively the Orioles have all but given up for 2008. If and when Brian Roberts gets traded, this will be an outstanding team to match up with in fantasy leagues.
There is hope for the future though. Between Nick Markakis and Adam Jones the Orioles have the highest potential outfield in the majors. Luke Scott should also turn some heads and allow people to realize that the Tejada trade was more then just a salary dump.
Breakout Candidate: Adam Loewen
I am confident the Orioles teach their minor leaguers to MISS the broadside of the barn. In fact, I would love to see some Pitch FX data to see exactly how far out of the zone Loewen works.
That said, I expect the 24 year old to begin making strides toward stardom in 2008.
Major Addition: Adam Jones
PECOTA projects Jones to be nearly as good in 2008 as in 2014. He has all the tools in the world and the Mariners will regret trading him away as soon as the 2009 season.
All that being said, Jones is already better then what the Orioles had in 2007, so that is a step in the right direction.
Major Subtraction: Not getting rid of Kevin Millar
There is no reason Millar should still be with the club. There were ample options available in the free agent market—young hitters with decent potential.