Each Team's Flaws Leave American League East as Wide Open as It's Ever Been
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"You know, Susan. You just CAN'T predict baseball!"
Yes, I just quoted notoriously obnoxious Yankees radio announcer John Sterling, but it couldn't be more true, especially this coming season.
It was a very eventful offseason for the American League East. The Toronto Blue Jays made the biggest splash, beefing up to try to make the playoffs for the first time in 20 years when Joe Carter galloped around the bases to deliver Canada's second consecutive World Championship.
The Boston Red Sox retooled in the winter following their worst season since 1965, took the Blue Jays' former manager, John Farrell and brought him back to New England.
The Tampa Bay Rays, because of payroll restrictions, traded season veteran and gamer James Shields to Kansas City and brought Wil Myers, who appears to be the real deal and Tampa's future franchise player (along with Evan Longoria)
The Baltimore Orioles did very little to improve on their return to relevance in 2012, but appear to fully trust their skipper Buck Showalter and their shut down bullpen and look to welcome young studs Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman and Manny Machado (already had his taste of the show last fall).
And then there's the two-time reigning division champions, the New York Yankees. Needless to say, their offseason was a disaster, losing their temporary closer, catcher and right fielder to free agency and worst of all, three stars who would have been in the Opening Day lineup.
The media is already writing the New York Yankees' obituary, with the same tired "too old, too many injuries" talking points. But reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated. The Bronx Bombers remain a threat in the American League, despite their age and injuries.
For one, the three men who have carried this franchise to five championships in the last 18 years are all back and healthy. Mariano Rivera returns for his final ride after having his 2012 cut short. Andy Pettitte and his health will be key to the Yankees' rotation. Most of all, as long as his ankle holds up, Derek Jeter should have no trouble being his usual consistent self, even at soon-to-be-39.
While the Yankees don't have age or overall health on their side, their strong pitching led by CC Sabathia should be able to keep the Yankees competitive.
What helps the Yanks' chances even more is the state of the AL East. Looking at things objectively, it's very clear that each team has strengths to boast about and serious flaws that could turn fatal.
We already know about the Yankees. The current injuries to Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira leave them with their weakest lineup in almost 20 years. The concerns are very real and justified. But injuries will eventually heal and people will step up in this marathon of a baseball season.
Moreover, there aren't many teams in the American League (besides Detroit) that can match their strength in pitching arms. As long as their top three of Sabathia, Pettitte and Kuroda and their eighth-ninth combo of David Robertson and Mariano Rivera are healthy, they could out-pitch almost any team in the majors.
Meanwhile, their arch-nemeses the Boston Red Sox have completely retooled their lineup, adding the likes of Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, Jonny Gomes and David Ross. They also added Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan to be their ninth-inning man. However, if Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz can't rebound from a poor 2012 to lead a train-wreck of a rotation, they'll easily miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year.
Returning for the upstart Orioles are longtime O's Nick Markakis and Brian Roberts. If they're healthy, it makes Baltimore's offense better. Everyone from the second-best bullpen in the AL is still here. The only question is if they can still be successful in one-run ballgames or in extra innings (29-9 and 16-2 records respectively) or if they don't need to be. Plus, their rotation has to be better (21st in MLB and ninth in the AL in ERA) or last year may just be a fluke. But, Buck Showalter is the perfect skipper for this team, and they will still be a thorn in the big dog's side.
Tampa Bay, however, boasts arguably the best manager in the game, Joe Maddon. Despite losing James Shields, they still have possibly the best pitching staff in baseball. Fernando Rodney won't have another season with an ERA under one, but he's still automatic in the ninth along with the relievers before him. The reigning AL Cy Young recipient David Price leads a very young but immensely talented rotation. However, the offense lives and dies by Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist. Like the Yankees, their hitting could stall if both those guys got hurt.
Finally, we have the Toronto Blue Jays, who bulked up in the winter, adding Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle from the Miami Marlins, taking a low-risk/high-reward signing on previously suspended Melky Cabrera as a free agent and adding NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. It seems the Blue Jays, like Red Sox were in 2011, are everybody's pick to win it all this year.
However, if we learned anything from Boston in 2011 and Miami in 2012, it's never to crown a champion before the games are played. Toronto was historically plagued by the injury bug last year, using 12 different starting pitchers. Over the span of five days, they lost three different starters to injuries: Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchinson.
Other prominent injuries included catcher J.P. Arencibia, Brett Lawrie and of course, franchise player Jose Bautista. Even players they added have injury histories. Jose Reyes has a long one, especially relating to his legs, suffering injuries to his calf and hamstrings during his time in New York, so playing on the Toronto turf for 81 games has to be somewhat of a concern. Josh Johnson also had somewhat of an injury history in Florida, but he has looked stellar in spring training.
Although many media members have fallen in love with the Blue Jays and have completely counted out the Yankees (even the Red Sox), it's clear the American League East is the most wide open perhaps ever. Every team has a good chance of winning it or taking a wild card berth, but any of them can go down in flames if their weaknesses are not overcome.
Currently Baseball Prospectus has the Yankees as the favorites to win the division and Tampa Bay to get a wild card berth:
NYY: 91-71 (AL East champs)
TB: 87-75 (Wild Card berth)
It's pretty realistic to say the winner of the division may not win more than 95 games, because they will spend the whole summer beating each other up. Remember: It's a marathon, so don't be encouraged or discouraged by the Yankees' current situation with their injuries. The Yankees are more than alive in this race.
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