This article is the final installment of a six-part series in which I analyze each division in baseball and tell you exactly how I believe things are going to shake out this season.
I am by no means a credible source—merely a casual fan who knows a little about baseball and would like to share his observations and thoughts.
Today we look at the AL East, as its two powers prepare to do battle tonight in Boston. Will these two clubs take the top two spots again? Or can an unlikely contender give them a run for their (quite literal) money?
Tampa Bay Rays (91-71)
The Rays can bump heads with any of the superpowers in the East. This is the year we're gonna begin to see the spoils that they've accumulated with their early draft picks from all the team's years of futility.
My man David Price has yet to show what he can really do out there; this will be his breakout year. He had a little problem with the long ball last season that accounts for his inflated ERA (4.42), but he still held opponents to a very respectable .241 average. If he can work on keeping the ball on the ground, he'll be golden.
Wade Davis will be right behind Price, and we caught a few glimpses of what he's capable of last September, including when he threw a 10-strikeout, four-hit shutout against the Orioles (which Nick Swisher could've done, but give Wade a break; he didn't make the schedule).
Homegrown is always the best way to build a pitching staff, and the Rays have done that better than anyone.
Also, remember all those old guys you'd see on TV wandering around at Rays games last year? Like they got lost on the way back to their seats from the bathroom?
Well, this may surprise you, but those were actually members of the Rays' bullpen.
The good news for Rays fans: Gone is the not-so-fearsome foursome of Russ Springer, Troy Percival, Chad Bradford, and Jason Isringhausen.
I don't actually know where they went, as I have not heard of any of them being signed by another team. All I know is they aren't on the Rays' roster. It's possible a couple of them have been relegated to a role of "ball dude" or "the guy that watches the stingray tank and makes sure the kids don't lean in too far."
But let's focus on the guys brought in to replace them.
Rafael Soriano, the new closer. Dude is a beast. The last three years with Atlanta, he held batters to a ridiculous .185 average.
Joaquin Benoit is solid and could prove to be a reliable eighth-inning bridge.
All systems are go this year for the Rays. They can't afford to wait until next season and risk losing some key parts of their team to free agency (Carlos Peña, Carl Crawford).
Expect them to make a big move at the trade deadline, possibly upgrading the DH spot if Pat Burrell fails to produce again. Could Manny Ramirez end up back in the AL East?
Boston Red Sox (89-73) (Wild Card)
Let's recap last season for the Red Sox: Going in, they were the favorite to win not only the division, but also the World Series.
This, of course, is based on my picks from last year, and since I'm never wrong, it means that unforeseen occurrences affected the outcome of their season.
So what happened?
In short, injuries plagued key members of the pitching staff, David Ortiz forgot how to hit home runs for a few months, and the rotation wasn't built to win a five-game series.
Fast-forward to this year. On paper, there's no reason to think this team is any worse than the one that took the field last Opening Day.
Marco Scutaro was the best pickup they made in the offseason; he'll get on base for them, but the question is where in the lineup he'll hit. The Sox don't want to lose either Dustin Pedroia's bat or Jacoby Ellsbury's steals at the top of the order, so Scoot may be pushed down to the six spot, where his stats may take a dive.
I'm less enthusiastic about the other bats they picked up, Adrian Beltre and Mike Cameron. Those two give them a little depth, but neither should be starting.
Beltre may as well be crowned the "Antichrist of walks," drawing just 19 last season in 477 PAs. Cameron, supposedly brought in to be a defensive upgrade, is 37 years old and can hardly benefit an already capable outfield of Jeremy Hermida, Ellsbury, and J.D. Drew.
The rotation is always the Red Sox' strength, and this year is no exception.
The addition of John Lackey gives them a phenomenal 1-2-3 punch, maybe the best in the majors, and they'll have a fighting chance in that pesky Game Three of the ALDS. This also gives them six solid starters, so if one goes down with an injury (which will happen), they've got a backup.
Since the Wild Card is essentially a competition between the two contenders in the East who don't win the division, we're going to assume the Red Sox will win it. Moving on to the team that won't—
New York Yankees (85-77)
Last season, CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira proved that, indeed, $400 million can buy a World Series championship.
However, now you've gotta wonder whether, a year removed from the winter of record-breaking free-agent signings, these big names will start to regress, as many stars have done in their sophomore year in pinstripes.
Call it the Yankee curse.
History will show us that big-name signings tend to slip the second year under contract: Jason Giambi hit .314 the first year of his monster deal and slumped to .250 the next year, never coming close to hitting .300 in a season ever again. El Duque went 12-4, 3.13 his rookie year in the majors but then went on to put up solid but unspectacular numbers the rest of his career.
And remember Jose Contreras? No? Exactly.
I'm going to make the bold prediction that all three of these financially sound gentlemen will regress this season.
Let's look at this year's additions.
Javier Vazquez pulled an amazing season out of his ass last year that I can't think of an explanation for, other than he was in the National League. He won't have the same luxury this year, and his stats will inflate accordingly.
Nick Johnson should be able to find his power stroke again and put up 20 homers for the first time since '06.
Curtis Granderson, however, needs to stop thinking he's Wesley Snipes in Major League II. He hit 30 dingers last season, but it was at the expense of his batting average (down to .249 from .280 the year before). It's clear that he has been swinging for the fences but in doing so is getting under the ball and popping it up. (Evidence: His ground out/air out ratio was a ridiculous 0.59 and infield fly percentage a well above average 17 percent.)
As tempting as the long ball may be in his new home, he needs to focus on line drives and getting on base in his role as table-setter.
Altogether, the Yankees are still the Yankees but are very much on the decline and won't match last year's performance.
Baltimore Orioles (77-85)
The O's are pretty far along in the rebuilding process now, having secured their core players with long-term contracts and started to build around them with youngsters.
A few reached the majors last year and didn't disappoint. Matt Wieters hit .288 in a solid rookie year, but that number doesn't account for the learning curve of seeing big league pitching for the first time. From June 8 on he hit .301/.354/.426; from Aug. 23 on .331/.389/.479. I project him to be a perennial .330 hitter who will start to show some power this season.
Also watch for Brian Matusz—he's gonna drop it like it's hot this year. He'll be eased into the rotation, but by September he'll show you why he was a fourth overall pick.
Matusz and the rest of Baltimore's surplus of young arms will also now have veteran Kevin Millwood to impart some wisdom on them. Millwood was not a bad pickup for the price, not only for this reason but also because he might win a few games and help bump the Orioles out of the cellar.
A warning though: Don't expect much from their other offseason pickup, Miguel Tejada. That move might help put a few asses in seats, but after a horrible spring training, I'm calling it—he's done.
The range of Cesar Izturis will prove to be much more valuable this year, so as long as the plan is to have a shortstop who can't hit, why not help out the young pitchers a little?
Toronto Blue Jays (67-95)
The Jays have officially gone into full rebuilding mode with the firing of their GM and trade of Roy Halladay.
We saw breakout years from Aaron Hill and Adam Lind last season, two players who could potentially be the core of the contending team they're trying to build towards.
Now Kyle Drabek, the pitcher it was damn near impossible to get the Phillies to part with, will be a piece of that puzzle, joining a couple other starters who could be worth keeping an eye on this year.
Shaun Marcum hasn't pitched since 2008, but he had a great year, rockin' a 1.16 WHIP and .222 batting average against. Expect him to step up as the staff ace now that he's back in action.
Marc Rzepczynski is still developing, and his numbers after being brought up last year don't exactly jump off the page, but he did post a .225 BAA in 11 starts. Not too shabby.
As for my World Series picks, I'm predicting the Rays to defeat the Cardinals.
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