As Spring Training nears closer, baseball fever is beginning to run rampant. With only one week left in the NFL season, it's only a matter of time before people start looking south to Florida for hints at what's to come in the new season.
Over the next couple of months, I'll be breaking down a division each week before making my final predictions for how the season is going to turn out.
First up, the loaded AL East.
Robinson Cano paces the best offense in the AL East
Rankings: 1) Yankees, 2) Red Sox, 3) Orioles, 4) Blue Jays and 5) Rays
The Yankees will remain the dominant offense in the division despite the offseason acquisitions made by their rivals. They didn't lose any major piece and a full season for Granderson will only help his acclimation to his new hometown. Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano give them speed on the bases, while Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira will provide the power from the middle of the order.
However, despite Cano's rise as one of the top hitters in baseball, the Yankee strength lies in their limited weaknesses. There is not a real low point in their order, unless you count new catcher, Russell Martin, who, despite past success, has had a rough go of it the last couple of years.
The man he replaces, Jorge Posada, should see a bump in his offensive production as his body avoids the wear and tear of catching and starting RF, Nick Swisher, should continue to provide 20+ HRs and 80+ RBIs from the back portion of the order. If he can continue to cut down on his strikeouts and keep his average up, this could be a very dangerous offense again.
The Red Sox will feature a much stronger lineup than the one that ended the season last year. Newcomers Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez give the Red Sox two of the best left-handed hitters in the game in the same lineup. But Crawford's acquisition, when paired with returning CF Jacoby Ellsbury, gives the Sox two of the best base stealers in the entire league in the same lineup.
The return of Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis from injury will only improve the offensive production. Both are perennial MVP candidates who not only make pitchers work, but compile high batting averages to go along with multiple extra base hits and RBIs.
Youkilis return and Gonzalez's arrival should lighten the pressure on DH David Ortiz, who will be able to slide down further in the lineup and likely see more at-bats with runners in scoring position, which will only limit the amount that pitchers can throw around him.
However, the difference between the Yankees and Red Sox is the question marks in the Red Sox lineup. If Marco Scutaro wins the SS job from Jed Lowrie, he provides an average bat, who lacks real speed, power or on-base skills. He's nothing more than average.
Which is more than can be said for the production the Red Sox have gotten from Jason Varitek on offense, and though he is likely to start behind Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the switch-hitters both have much to prove.
The Orioles are a team that could surprise people this season. They have always had a solid foundation of young talent, but have made some interesting offseason moves that could pay dividends during the 2011 season.
Adam Jones, Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis will again be at the center of the Orioles offensive attack. Jones has begun to come into his own and should provide a consistent offensive threat near the top of the order with Markakis, who despite a power shortage in recent years is a threat to hit .300 every season and Roberts who is a doubles machine and a true speed threat at the top of the order.
They will be joined by three newcomers, JJ Hardy, Mark Reynolds and Derrick Lee. Reynolds may have the highest offensive ceiling of the three, and despite collecting impressive strikeout totals over the last couple of seasons, he is a good bet for 30+ home runs in the middle of the lineup. Which is a total that Lee could also reach despite his advancing age and drop in production last year with Atlanta.
Lee was putting up 20+ HRs and hitting .280 or higher with the Cubs before the trade, so a resurgence is not out of the question. However, Hardy is more of a defensive threat, who has seen his offensive production drop off after reaching career heights in 2008. He is still an above average hitter, but no longer a good bet for 20+ HRs or a .280 average.
Luke Scott put together a strong campaign as the Orioles DH last year, and if Matt Wieters is able to live up to some of the hype that followed him into the major leagues, the Orioles could have a very strong offense.
Despite having some big-time power numbers last year, the Blue Jays, still do not have a consistent offensive team. The law of averages suggests that Jose Bautista will go back to being an average or even slightly above average regular, and while Aaron Hill's 20+ HR streak may continue his average that landed just over the mendoza line is a major concern.
The success of their offense could hinge on the incredible potential of Travis Snider, Adam Lind and JP Arencibia, who all showed flashes at times last year of being the offensive talents that people have been suggesting they can be. If Snider and Lind can bring up their averages to match their increase in power, the Blue Jays could become a much better offensive team.
As it stands, they are still two players who have yet to reach their potential, which newcomers Rajai Davis and Juan Rivera know all about. Both have had high expectations at multiple stops and never delivered up to their supposed potential. Although, Davis has put together back-to-back seasons with a high average and impressive stolen base numbers that suggest he may just turn into a solid top of the order hitter.
When 2011 is all said and done, the Blue Jays could easily have the third best offense in the division, but it's all going to depend on the continued development of some of their younger players.
This is a decidedly new look Rays team that despite some new big hitters, will try and win games with pitching and defense. The load of the offense will fall directly on the shoulders of Manny Ramirez who is coming off a poor season with the Dodgers and White Sox that have people questioning what he has left in the tank. If healthy, Ramirez can still be one of the best pure hitters in all of baseball, but besides him and All-Star 3B Evan Longoria, there is not much else to work with in Tampa.
Damon is a solid regular whose days of belting home runs and racking up stolen bases are behind him. BJ Upton keeps people drooling over the thought of his tremendous potential but has yet to show the ability to put it all together. Ben Zobrist fell back to earth after his incredible 2009 season and Reid Brignac is more of a solid defender and .270 hitter than offensive force.
Rounding out the less than imposing lineup is DH Dan Johnson, who has never matched the power and average of his minor league stats who indicate what he has inside of him and two subpar batters in John Jaso and Sean Rodriguez.
Lester could compete for a Cy Young while pacing the best rotation in the division
Rankings: 1) Red Sox, 2) Rays, 3) Blue Jays, 4) Yankees and 5) Orioles
Top to bottom, the Red Sox have the most dominant rotation in the division. They have two legitimate Cy Young candidates in Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz and potential top of the line starters filling out the rotation in Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Lester is now the unquestioned ace of the staff, taking over the mantle from Beckett, but Buchholz has finally put together all the pieces and made good on his potential, finishing last year 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA and 120 strikeouts to only 67 walks. But look out for Beckett, who has a history of rebounding strongly after poor seasons. Last time Beckett finished with an ERA over 5.00, he came back to post 20 wins and a 3.86 ERA to help lead Boston to a World Series. Pair that with Lackey, who hadn't had an ERA over four since 2004 and you have two incredible candidates for bounce-back seasons.
The Rays may have lost some big names, but they are still going to feature a standout rotation. Led by David Price, the Rays are full of power arms. Started to build on his promise, putting together a strong full season in 2010, with a .242 BAA and 131 strikeouts in 170 innings. If he and fellow top prospects Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann and Jeremy Hellickson can build on their 2010 seasons, in which Davis compiled 12 wins and a 4.09 ERA, this is a team that is primed to stifle offenses.
The name to focus on in Tampa might just be James Shields. After posting a few solid seasons behind his devastating change-up, Shields seemed to fall apart last year. If he is able to regain a shade of that old form, he could be a very solid pitcher at the back end of the rotation.
The Blue Jays rotation doesn't feature a lot of well-known names, but what it is full of is talent. It starts with ace Ricky Romero, who may not be a prototypical top end starter, but built on his rookie season with a tremendous sophomore campaign that saw him tally 14 wins and a 3.73 ERA. He'll be joined by Brandon Morrow, who showed promise in his first season as a starter and Brett Cecil who earned 15 wins and a 4.22 ERA in his first full season. If Jesse Litsch can regain his 2008 form and Kyle Drabek, the prize acquisition in the Roy Halladay deal, can earn his rightful spot in the rotation, the Blue Jays could feature five solid starters.
While the Yankees may have the big names at the top of the rotation, the talent just isn't what it has been in years past. CC Sabathia is one of the games best, but after him, the rest is one big question mark. AJ Burnett seemed to fall apart last year with 15 losses and an ERA over five. It wouldn't be concerning if he didn't have a reputation as a fragile and inconsistent pitcher.
The Yankees will need Phil Hughes to build on his 18-win season, because the back half of the rotation provides nothing. Sergio Mitre has only had an ERA under five once in his career as a starter, and Ivan Nova is a mediocre prospect with very little experience to suggest he can be a viable member of the rotation.
For all the strides they've made this offseason, the rotation is not an area of great improvement for the Orioles. Their ace, Jeremy Guthrie was once a prize prospect but would be no more than a No. 3 in most rotations. His 3.83 ERA in 2010 was solid, but he has been inconsistent throughout his entire career, and it's had to gauge if he can keep that form. The Orioles made big noise this week by signing former A, Justin Duchscherer, whose battled injuries throughout his career, but has shown tremendous talent when healthy.
After them, the Orioles trot out a lot of arms that have talent but are not nearly ready for quality major league innings, led by Brian Matusz and Brad Bergesen, both whom have promise, but have yet to show any signs they belong in the front half of a rotation. Rounding it out are Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman, battling for one spot.
The ever-consistent Rivera is still one of the games top closers
Rankings: 1) Yankees, 2) Red Sox, 3) Blue Jays, 4) Orioles and 5) Rays
There is something to be said for consistency, and there might not be a more consistent major leaguer than Mariano Rivera, who will again lead the bullpen for the Yankees.
Rivera has defied expectations, continued his reign as a dominant closer into his 40s with one main pitch. However, the real success for the Yankees will lie in their ability to not only get the ball to their closer but not put the weight of the world on his shoulders. Unlike years past, the Yankees have another reliable reliever to close out games in Rafael Soriano, the closer last year for the Rays. Soriano will give the Yanks an elite eighth-inning guy to prevent them from over-extending their closer, while also being available to close out games if Mariano had been used too much.
The Yankees will also be able to play matchups throughout the rest of their bullpen. In Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson, they have two powerful right-handers they can pair up with two above average left-handed specialists in Pedro Feliciano and Damaso Marte. All together, it gives the Yankees a talented and flexible bullpen.
The Red Sox are another team that has made some significant improvements to their bullpen this offseason, but what might hurt them is the change they didn't make. Papelbon just didn't look like the same pitcher last year. For a guy who wanted to be a starter, he too often relies on one pitch, and when you throw 94-95 in the majors, you better be able to spot it consistently, or it's going to get hit.
He too often relied on over-powering hitters, and he saw his ERA balloon to 3.90. However, because of his massive salary, the Sox were forced to keep Papelbon around and leave closer of the future, Daniel Bard, waiting in the wings.
The Sox also brought in former White Sox closer Bobby Jenks, who has had some struggles of his own but still possesses rare talent. The question will be how he settles into a seventh-inning role. Then the Sox need to find another reliable arm. Dan Wheeler and Scott Atchison have had success, but one of them needs to step up and LH Hideki Okajima needs to re-discover the form that made him a dominant lefty in 2007 and 2008. If he is unable to do that, then the Sox will have no lefty to turn to in the pen.
Recent transactions have put the Blue Jays not far behind the Yanks and Red Sox in the running for best bullpen. After trading Mike Napoli for Frank Fransisco and landing Jon Rauch and Octavio Dotel, the Jays now have three solid relievers with closing experience. While this experiment has failed in the past, the crucial element is that both Dotel and Rauch have been seventh or eighth-inning guys before in their career, roles which they are likely to play this season. It allows the Blue Jays to not only play the hot hand but also the matchups and throw each arm in a situation that is best for them.
If Jason Frasor is able to relocate the stuff that made him a temporary closer, and Shawn Camp can build on a season that saw him turn in a 2.99 ERA in 70+ innings, the Blue Jays could have a really dominant pen. Their only weakness is a lack of left-handed specialist. A role which will likely be filled by David Purcey, a towering but inconsistent arm whose only had one average major league season.
The Orioles pen is going to get a lot of work with their shaky rotation so they better hope it's improved from last season. New is closer Kevin Gregg, who has never been dominant but has had successful runs as a closer with Toronto, Florida and Chicago in recent years. He'll team at the back end with Mike Gonzalez who was one of the Orioles prize free-agent signings last year before getting hurt and missing parts of the season. If he is able to regain the form that made him a factor in Atlanta, they could form a solid duo at the end of games.
Trying to get the ball into their hands will be former Orioles closer Alfredo Simon, who saved 17 games for the O's last season despite a .277 BAA and an ERA approaching five, and key free agent re-signing, Koji Uehara. After flirting with other offers, Uehara returns to Baltimore as their likely seventh inning man, after compiling in a 2.86 ERA in 44 innings last year. He has impeccable control with a 11:1 K:BB ratio and is another strong arm for the Orioles.
It's hard to predict just what kind of bullpen the Rays will put together this year. After losing the majority of their arms, including Benoit, Balfour, Soriano and Wheeler, Tampa Bay will have almost an entirely new look.
Thrust into the closers role will likely be left-hander JP Howell who has emerged as a dominant set up man the last two seasons, even saving 17 games for the Rays last year. Beside him at the back of the pen will be flame-throwing Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta, who has bounced around the league as an unsuccessful arm until finding some rhythm last year with the Nationals.
Adding to the party will be former starter Andy Sonnanstine, whose transition to the bullpen last year was rocky to the tune of a 4.44 ERA and a .259 BAA and lefty Jake McGee who appeared in only eight games for the Rays last year.
Crawford will bring a strong defensive presence to the Red Sox outfield
For most of my defense analysis, I took basic observations and matched them up with statistical information made readily available at www.fangraphs.com. Besides taking into account obvious stats like errors and assists, I looked at the statistical evaluations for a player's range, as well as the most influential defense stat amongst modern General Managers, which is UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating).
The Ultimate Zone Rating takes into account a defender's arm, double play capabilities, range and amount of errors in relation to the average at that position in Major League Baseball. To make the stats even more efficient, I used the UZR/150, which calculates the impact players make on defense over 150 game average, which is a fair estimate of how many games most starting players will likely take part in.
Rankings: 1) Red Sox, 2) Yankees, 3) Rays, 4) Orioles and 5) Blue Jays
The Red Sox that take the field at the beginning of the season are going to look nothing like the team that ended the 2010 season, and it will spell big time upgrades in their defensive game. Gone is stud 3B Adrian Beltre, but with Youkilis and Pedroia back, their infield defense should be one of the better units in the league.
Youkilis is not a Gold Glover at 3B, like he is as 1B, but he has solid hands, quick release and a strong arm. Pedroia has good range, quick hands on double plays and had a UZR/150 of almost 10 before being injured last season, which will help with his average middle infield partner, Scutaro. Marco was brought over more for his offense than defense, which is understandable since he struggled again last season and had a UZR/150 of 3.3 runs below average. Rounding out the infield is Adrian Gonzalez, who is a Gold Glove-caliber 1B in his own right.
The other high profile acquisition will also help bolster Boston's defense. Carl Crawford had the highest UZR/150 of any LF in baseball for two years before finishing second to Yankees Brett Gardner last season. Pairing him with Ellsbury in CF, who has exceptional range and a UZR/150 of 21.3 prior to injury, should more than make up for the average defense of JD Drew in RF who doesn't offer much besides a strong throwing arm.
Behind the plate, the Red Sox will continue to struggle whether Saltalamacchia or Varitek win the job.
Yet another category where the Red Sox will battle the Yankees. Despite Gardner being discussed as being the strongest defensive LF in the division, the entire outfield doesn't paint as rosy a picture. Granderson is another solid piece of the puzzle, but he has never had a UZR/150 of more than seven runs above average, which is solid, but not enough to compensate for the below average performance of Swisher in RF. Despite solid range, Swisher is an average defender with a below average arm for the RF position.
The topic that comes up most when looking at the Yankees infield from a defensive point of view is the deteriorating range of Derek Jeter. Any observer can tell you he isn't getting to balls that he used to and his statistical range accounts for almost 12 runs below average at the SS position. However, the rest of the group really picks him up. Cano has solid range for a 2B, but his quick hands are what make him most valuable, which is similar to Rodriguez, who's bulky frame limits this overall range at the hot corner, but he possesses great hands and a strong arm. Across the diamond, former Gold Glover Teixeira had a down year last year, but he still is a big target with quick reflexes who is strong when fielding throws in the dirt.
Lastly, Posada's move to DH will only help the Yankee defense that was really hampered by his poor performance behind the plate. Russell Martin is still more of an offensive catcher, but he should provide a better backstop.
Tampa Bay is always a team that has prided itself on pitching and defense, but some key offseason moves have really put a dent in their defensive armor. Perhaps the biggest change will be losing Crawford. Replacing him with the aging and blow average Johnny Damon, who's arm was never really there and his range is starting to leave him. They Rays hope to hide his deficiencies with two strong OFs in BJ Upton and Ben Zobrist, who was an underrated defender last season, showing above average range and posting a UZR/150 of 11 runs.
The infield will similarly try and cover up one glaring weakness in 1B Dan Johnson, who will be moved from his DH spot with the acquisition of Manny Ramirez. While not having spent much time at 1B, Johnson has displayed below average range and hands. However, the rest of the infield is strong with Evan Longoria a strong player on the hot corner and a solid double play duo in Brignac and Rodriguez.
John Jaso is only average behind the plate, but he rounds out a solid defensive unit.
Baltimore continues its trend of being improved but still not enough. It will field a better overall defense in 2011 but still not one that ranks amongst the top in their division. For all their plus tools, both Adam Jones and Nick Markakis are average defense outfielders. Despite being an above average defender during the 2008 season, Markakis has seen his overall performance dip the last two campaigns, ending with a UZR/150 of almost five last season. Jones, came in very similarly at 4.7 runs below average and while its reasonable to assume that both will improve, they can only be counted on to be average at their positions.
Brian Roberts will be the only returning starter in the infield and although his defense was average last season, he missed half the season with injury and will likely see his performance rise to slightly above average again during a full season. However, despite the lack of continuity, it's the new players that should really improve the Orioles defense.
JJ Hardy is a well above average SS, who despite not being the quickest double play turner, has solid range and good hands and finished last season with a UZR/150 of almost 13. At the corners, both Derrick Lee and Mark Reynolds are more known for their bats than gloves, but both have been above average fielders during their careers and despite Lee's advanced age, he is still an average defender at 1B.
With the likely improvement of Wieters behind the plate, defense should be a strength for the Orioles.
Toronto struggles on the defensive end, which is odd, considering it is a team that is building itself around its pitching. Travis Snider is the team's only well above average defensive player. He doesn't have an exceptional arm for a right fielder, but he has good range and, according to the UZR, his overall defensive game is about 24 runs better than average at his position.
But after that, it's all goes downhill. Snider is flanked in the outfield by newcomers Rajai Davis and Juan Rivera who both displayed below average skills last season. Despite great speed, Davis was almost 15 runs below average last season, while Juan Rivera was just over seven runs below average in left field.
In the infield, their best defender, John MacDonald, is likely to be their infield reserve. Yunel Escobar has the potential to be a solid starting SS, but last season, he was four runs below average at SS, while combining for 18 errors in both leagues and totaling a .969 fielding percentage in his time with the Jays.
He has an above average double play partner in Aaron Hill, who has limited range, but a strong glove and a 4.1 UZR/150 rating. Adam Lind will likely start at first, and he's proved to be a very capable defender during his time there, but offensive leader Jose Bautista was an atrocious 10.4 runs below average at 3B last year. Pair that up with J.P. Arencibia as a slightly above average defensive catcher and you're looking at a middle of the pack defensive team.
A solid starter last season, Cameron will be one of the Sox top options off the bench
Rankings: 1) Red Sox, 2) Blue Jays, 3) Orioles, 4) Yankees and 5) Rays
The Red Sox strong bench is led by two players who could wind up battling their way into starting spots. After joining the Sox last year, Mike Cameron made himself a valuable asset, struggling through multiple injuries to hit .260 in 40+ games. When healthy, Cameron provides a stellar glove and some pop off the bench, which matches up nicely with the defense and potential of switch-hitting infielder Jed Lowrie. After missing the end of 2009 and most of 2010 recovering from a wrist injury, Lowrie could push Scutaro as the starting SS coming off of a 55 game stretch where he hit .287 with a BB:K ratio of 1:1 and a .381 OBP.
Whichever catcher between Varitek and Salty fails to gain the starting job will add some experience off the bench and will likely be joined by either Ryan Kalish or Lars Anderson, two top prospects in the Sox system who would provide a LH bat off the bench. Kalish may have the upper hand after appearing in over 50 games last season and showing some power, speed and patience at the plate.
One of the benefits of having a young and talented lineup is that your bench is usually filled with valuable veteran experience, which is the case for the Blue Jays. Although he never lived up to his immense promise, Edwin Encarnacion is a decent player to have coming off your bench. A career .258 hitter, he belted 21 HRs for the Jays last season and has had 15+ HRs in four of his six MLB seasons. That power is a valuable asset off the bench.
As is the defense that John McDonald provides. A lightweight with the bat, McDonald can play anywhere in the infield and do it with incredible skill. He is a defensive whiz, which can also be said of backup catcher Jose Molina, who like his two brothers has made his reputation at being a solid back-stop and a true mentor for young pitchers. Having three veterans with starting experience and specific talents on your bench is never a bad thing.
Despite not having a lot of numbers to back them up, the Orioles bench will feature a few intriguing and potentially valuable members. Perhaps none more than Nolan Reimold, a talented prospect who struggled last year after .270 with 15 HRs in his rookie campaign in 2009. He gives the Orioles a legitimate offensive presence off the bench, which matches up nicely with the two defensive replacements in Cesar Izturis and Robert Andino.
Rounding out the relevant members are utility man Jake Fox and one of the top prospects in the Orioles farm system, Josh Bell. A former fourth-round pick of the Dodgers, Bell turned a corner when traded to the Orioles and possesses real power from either side of the plate. If he is able to show any of that this season, the Orioles could have an even brighter future.
One of the downfalls of having a highly paid starting lineup is that there usually isn't the chance to have any valuable depth behind it. Such is the case for the 2011 Yankees, whose bench is filled with tons of question marks. Both Ramiro Pena and Eduardo Nunez are likely to make the roster as backups in the infield, but while they both have defensive versatility, neither is a future Gold Glover or such with the bat. In 154 at-bats, Pena hit only .227 and showed very little discipline at the plate, while Nunez faired much better but has only 30 games under his belt.
Rounding out the bench for the Yanks will likely be an inexperienced youngster in either Kevin Russo, Colin Curtis or Greg Golson, none of whom offer much in the way of offensive production off the bench. In fact, the Yanks best bench option might be Francisco Cervelli, who hit .271 as a backup to Posada last season.
When your waiting on the next level of talent to show up, your team isn't usually all that deep at the MLB level. This is the case for the Rays. With Desmond Jennings likely opening the season in AAA, the Rays are left with only Matt Joyce as a player of note coming off their bench, and he hasn't been anything to write home about.
Kelly Shoppach is an average backup catcher, and Sam Fuld got some extensive experience with the Cubs, but when your bench is rounded out by Elliot Johnson and Justin Ruggiano, you are not in good shape.
The trade for Gonzalez will likely put on smile on many Sox fans faces throughout the 2011 season
1) Red Sox
They made the big moves in free agency, and it's set to pay off as this team is loaded from top to bottom.
They still have some big names, but they are getting older, and the depth in their rotation just isn't there.
3) Blue Jays
The Jays have been clawing at the surface for a few years now, and despite losing Marcum and trading away Wells, they are set to put together a very solid season.
Don't look now, but the Orioles might just climb out of the basement this season. With talented young players and some up and a solid bullpen, they could make some noise.
The signing of Damon and Ramirez were moves of desperation by a team that knows it is nowhere close to contending this season.