2011 AL East Preview: Where Do Red Sox, Yankees Stand After Eventful Winters?
Collectively, the AL East was as busy a division as there was in baseball this offseason.
After focusing on pitching and defense the Winter before and then failing to make the playoffs in 2010, Red Sox GM Theo Epstein took a different approach this offseason.
At the Winter Meetings, Epstein seized an opportunity to add a pair of marquee hitters in Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. The moves have the Red Sox poised to return to the playoffs in 2011.
Whereas Crawford's new team are arguably the biggest winners of the Winter, his old team, the Tampa Bay Rays, are among the biggest losers of the off season.
Aside from Crawford, the team said goodbye to Carlos Pena, Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and Rafael Soriano, among others.
Though they kept Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera in the fold, the New York Yankees failed to make the splash their arch rivals from Boston did.
After Cliff Lee spurned them to return to Philadelphia, the Bombers turned around and added Rafael Soriano to their pen and a slew of inexpensive veterans (Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia) to compete for spots in their suddenly thin rotation.
Andy MacPhail supplied Buck Showalter with more than enough power (Derrek Lee, Mark Reynolds, Vladimir Guerrero) to work with in his first full season in Baltimore, while Alex Anthopoulos furthered the Blue Jays' facelift by jettisoning Shaun Marcum and (somehow) Vernon Wells.
The Red Sox and Yankees appear to be in it to win it, and for all their losses this Winter, the Rays still have the most important ingredient of any championship caliber team; a deep, talented rotation. The Orioles and Blue Jays are both making serious progress.
This division race is always among the most interesting in baseball, and I don't expect that to change in 2011.
2010 Record: 66-96, Fifth Place
Offseason Grade (B)
Andy MacPhail took the necessary steps to improve an O's offense that scored the second fewest runs in the American League in 2010. Vladimir Guerrero and Derrek Lee are solid, proven veterans while Mark Reynolds and J.J. Hardy are nice low-risk, high-reward additions.
The presence of the Gold Glover Lee at 1B cannot be underestimated, as the O's had the most errors and worst fielding percentage at 1B in the majors last season.
Kevin Gregg was brought in to anchor the back of the bullpen and Justin Duchsherer, if healthy (and that's a very big if), could prove to be a great addition to a rotation that lacks a veteran presence aside from Jeremy Guthrie.
Strengths: Their lineup looks drastically improved, Guerrero and Lee being particularly significant additions. Nick Markakis and Adam Jones are both capable of much more than they showed in 2010. The back end of the team's bullpen, Koji Uehara, Mike Gonzalez, and Gregg, looks pretty potent.
Weaknesses: Strikeouts are already a major issue for Reynolds, and switching leagues likely doesn't help there. They're leaning heavily on Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta, both of whom had mixed results in 2010. As a whole, their rotation lacks veteran stability.
Breakout Candidate: Brian Matusz: The 23-year-old southpaw from Grand Junction, Colo., was picked by many (including me) to win AL Rookie of The Year last season.
He didn't have quite that kind of season as coming of age in the AL East proved difficult at first, but Matusz blossomed in the second half (7-3, 3.63 ERA, 63 SO in 72 innings), cementing himself as Baltimore's number two starter behind Jeremy Guthrie. Look for close to 15 wins and a sub 4 ERA in 2011.
The Bottom Line: Any predictions for the O's should be taken with a grain of salt as they were supposed to make major strides in 2010 yet only won two more games than they did the year before. That said, with a deep lineup and young rotation, this team is much better now than they were a year ago.
Perhaps the most significant difference between that team and this one is the man at the helm; Buck Showalter, a veteran manager who brings instant credibility to the clubhouse.
They went 34-23 after he took over last season, and I won't be surprised if the Birds keep making major strides under his watch.
Boston Red Sox
2010 Record: 89-73, Third Place
Offseason Grade (A):
The most improved team in baseball. Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, are two of the top five players at their respective positions who greatly improve Boston's lineup despite the departures of Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre.
Gonzalez's swing is tailor-made for Fenway Park and Crawford joins with Jacoby Ellsbury to give Boston quite the base-stealing tandem. Bobby Jenks, who needed a change of scenery more than anything, and Dan Wheeler are fine additions to the bullpen and were both signed rather affordably.
Strengths: One through nine, their lineup is as strong as any in baseball, boasting a superb balance of power and speed. On top of their offensive abilities, Gonzalez and Crawford bolster what was already a very strong defense.
Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz should only keep getting better and all of their other starters (Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka) have been considered top of the rotation starters in recent years. Should Jonathan Papelbon falter again, Jenks and Daniel Bard both have the stuff to close.
Weaknesses: Jarrod Saltalamacchia is hardly Victor Martinez's equal at the plate but like Martinez, he's had his fair share of struggles behind the plate. David Ortiz's struggles against lefties were so great last season (.222, 2 HR, .599 OPS in 185 AB), some have wondered if he should play against them at all.
Breakout Candidate: Daniel Bard: Papelbon is on a short leash heading into the season for a reason: Bard is flat-out nasty. The 25 year old flamethrower put his impressive heat to good use in 2010, posting a 1.00 WHIP, 9.16 K/9, .171 BAA, and LOB of 86% in 74.2 relief innings. Even with Jenks in the fold, I'd think Bard would be first in line to take over as closer should Papelbon not prove up to the job.
The Bottom Line: On paper, the Red Sox are the best team in the American League. Their lineup, defense, rotation, and bullpen all look very strong. The question with them will be health; they weren't able to stay healthy in 2010 and it was the biggest reason they didn't make the playoffs.
They're counting on Beckett to put his 2010 season behind him; fortunately, I don't think he can be as bad as he was two years in a row. With bounce-back seasons from a few key players and better luck health-wise, it could be a special season in Beantown.
New York Yankees
2010 Record: 95-67, Second Place (WC, lost ALCS to Texas)
Offseason Grade (C-)
Among AL teams, only the Angels had a more disappointing off season. It's not very often the Yankees don't get their man, but that's precisely what happened this Winter as Cliff Lee chose to return to the Phillies.
Most of the moves they did make, I liked. Derek Jeter is not worth $17M annually at this stage in career but they had to do whatever it took to keep him in pinstripes; they were in a similar position with Mariano Rivera.
$35M is an awful lot for a setup man but the addition of Rafael Soriano gives the Bombers the lock-down bull pen they'll need given their thin rotation.
If Russell Martin is over the hip fracture that cut his 2010 season short, he could prove to be a nice find.
Strengths: They have an All-Star at almost every position; in the presence of Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano has emerged as their best player. In addition to their prestigious power, Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson bring plenty of speed to the table.
With CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes in the fold, the top of their rotation is very strong. Their bullpen is among the best in baseball, which will help mitigate their lack of rotation depth.
Weaknesses: AJ Burnett is coming off a terrible season and given their failure to acquire a proven top-of-the-rotation starter this Winter, they need Burnett to be that pitcher.
They're also counting on an assortment of aging veterans (Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon) and unproven youngsters (Ivan Nova, Andrew Brackman) to round out their staff. Jeter and Rodriguez have both regressed defensively.
Breakout Candidate: Jesus Montero: Finding a breakout candidate on a team of mostly established players isn't easy, but I'm picking the young catcher whose name comes up virtually every time the Yankees are linked to a star player in trade rumors.
There seems to be little doubt that Montero will be a fine big league hitter, with some even likening him to Mike Piazza. His catching needs work though, and with Teixeira entrenched at 1B and the aging Jorge Posada requiring extensive time at DH, the Yankees might be hard-pressed to find at-bats for the youngster.
The Bottom Line: Even coming off the most disappointing offseason they've had in quite some time, the Yankees retained too talented a core of players to not be counted among the best teams in not only the AL but all of baseball.
Their rotation is full of question marks, with much resting on the shoulders of Burnett. That said, their offense is so explosive, they don't necessarily need to get great starting pitching every time out.
For all the improvements the Red Sox have made, don't expect the Yankees to let them go unchallenged.
Tampa Bay Rays
2010 Record: 96-66, First Place (Lost ALDS to Texas)
Offseason Grade (C-)
Carl Crawford, Matt Garza, Rafael Soriano, Carlos Pena, Jason Bartlett, Joaquin Benoit, and Grant Balfour: all key contributors from 2010 whose services the Rays will be without this season. That is an awful lot to lose and they simply did not have the financial means to replace them all.
I loved the Johnny Damon-Manny Ramirez package deal, who will bring veteran experience to a young clubhouse for less than $8M total.
While they were able to bolster their lineup, they had no such luck restocking their bullpen: Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta just are not enough to make up for losing basically their entire 2010 bullpen to free agency.
Strengths: Evan Longoria has emerged as a perennial MVP candidate and the best third baseman in the game. Though Crawford and Bartlett are gone, the team's outfield and middle infield depth is superb, with no shortage of candidates to step in for them both. Likewise, Jeremy Hellickson steps into Garza's place in their very young and talented rotation.
Weaknesses: Their bullpen is in shambles, with the unproven Jake McGee the top candidate to close: the last time they had a shaky pen (2009), they missed the postseason.
I'm very skeptical of Dan Johnson's ability to step in and replace Pena. The departure of players like Crawford and Bartlett not only weakens their lineup but their defense as well.
Breakout Candidate: Jeremy Hellickson: The consensus top right-handed pitching prospect in baseball, Hellickson was called up for the stretch run in 2010 and did not disappoint. In fact, he pitched so well (4-0, 3.47 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 4.13 K/BB in 36.1 innings), some thought he should've been in the Rays' postseason rotation.
Rays' brass are so high on "Hellboy," they jettisoned the stalwart Matt Garza to ensure he'd have a spot in their rotation come April. He's being given his chance; it's up to him to run with it. Certainly one of the early favorites for AL Rookie of The Year.
The Bottom Line: One of the deepest, most talented farm systems will have a chance to show its worth this season, as the Rays look to their young talent to help absorb the blow they suffered this past Winter.
With 12 of the first 89 picks in this June's draft, the Rays are poised to add to that already impressive system. Undoubtedly, the Rays are a model of efficiency who do a lot with a little as well as any franchise.
In such a brutally tough division though, they likely will need a year or two to regroup and reclaim their place atop the AL East.
Toronto Blue Jays
2010 Record: 85-77, Fourth Place
Off Season Grade (B+)
On one hand, the trades of Shaun Marcum and Vernon Wells hurt them as far as contending in 2011 goes. On the other, ridding themselves of Wells' albatross contract and creating much needed financial flexibility going forward was brilliant.
Rajai Davis steps in as the center fielder and while he doesn't have Wells' power, he has the speed to be a spark plug atop Toronto's lineup. Though they lost Scott Downs and Kevin Gregg, they were able to replenish their pen nicely with the additions of Jon Rauch, Frank Francisco and Octavio Dotel.
Strengths: Even with Wells and John Buck gone, they're an awesome power hitting team with Jose Bautista, Adam Lind, and Aaron Hill all serious 30+ home run threats.
Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, and Kyle Drabek lead a very potent young rotation. Rauch, Francisco, and Dotel give them no shortage of closer candidates.
Weaknesses: Their power does come with a trade off, as they finished with the 4th worst team AVG in the AL last season (.248). Lind and Hill are coming off terrible years and with Wells gone, they'll be counted on as focal points of Toronto's offense.
Only time will tell if Bautista can replicate his 2010 success as far as home runs go; I for one am skeptical.
Breakout Candidate: J.P. Arencibia: The Miami native who dazzled in his major league debut last season (4-5, 2 HR) gets the nod over my pick from last year, Travis Snider. His rawness showed in his subsequent 30 AB, as he mustered just a single hit. Clearly, hitting for average is not yet a part of his skill set.
He obviously has the faith of the Toronto front office as they flipped Mike Napoli to Texas mere days after acquiring him in the Wells deal. Sketchy as his batting eye may be, expect Arencibia to at least be a solid source of power for the Jays in 2011.
The Bottom Line: Since Alex Anthopoulos took over, the forecast for the Jays has brightened quite a bit. He's made excellent low risk, high-reward acquisitions such as Morrow, added to the farm system in the Roy Halladay and Shaun Marcum deals, and miraculously got another team to take on Vernon Wells' massive contract.
To his credit, he hasn't tried to revive the Jays overnight, understanding from the onset that building a legitimate contender would take time. 2011 looks like a transition year north of the border but at long last, it appears the Jays are out of neutral.
Five Players Who Could Change The Race
1. A.J. Burnett
Brian Cashman and company whiffed on Cliff Lee and watched Andy Pettitte retire, so it's up to Burnett to fulfill their need for a top of the rotation starter.
While he's yet to live up to his contract, he was at least solid in 2009, winning 13 games and posting a 4.04 ERA and K/9 of 8.5.
The Yankees would more than welcome that productivity but he's capable of even better than that as he showed in 2008 with Toronto (18-10, 4.07 ERA, 9.4 K/9 in 221.1 innings).
A return to that form could give the Yankees the edge they need to hold off the Red Sox.
2. B.J. Upton
It's up to him to be the Rays' catalyst with Carl Crawford gone. He's been immeasurably disappointing the past two seasons, failing to build on the promise he displayed during the Rays run to the World Series in 2008.
The problem could be between his ears, as his attitude has been questioned on more than one occasion.
At 26, he's still plenty young enough to realize his full potential. He could either help the Rays remain competitive or provide them quite the trading chip come late July.
3. Josh Beckett
Whereas he led them to the World Series in 2007, with Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz in the fold, they're merely counting on Beckett to be a serviceable No. 3 starter this season.
Competitor that he is, I'm sure Beckett is setting his sights higher than that, aiming to tap into the form that helped him win 17 games for the Red Sox in 2009.
If he, Lester, and Buchholz all pitch up to their abilities, the rest of the American League might not stand a chance this season.
4. Russell Martin
If nothing else, he'll solidify them behind the plate, as he's a great catcher and a serious upgrade over Jorge Posada and Francisco Cervelli. That said, it wasn't all that long ago this guy was mentioned among the game's best hitting backstops.
He's been around so long, it's easy to forget he's still just 27. He's never had a problem getting on base, and a move to Yankee Stadium could work wonders for his power stroke.
5. James Shields
He's in basically the exact same boat as teammate B.J. Upton.
Though Shields is still just 29 himself, he enters 2011 as the elder statesman in the Rays rotation, and they'll be counting on him for some quality innings as they try to hold off the Yankees and Red Sox.
If it doesn't work out, they can always trade him.
1. Boston Red Sox (101-61)
2. New York Yankees (95-67)
3. Baltimore Orioles (81-81)
4. Tampa Bay Rays (78-84)
5. Toronto Blue Jays (76-86)
Boston's shopping spree will pay off, as Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford will put them over the top and help them win the AL East for the first time since 2007.
Their lineup is going to rake, and so long as Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka pitch better, they have the deepest rotation in this division.
Though rotation depth is not a strength of the Yankees, their lineup will have no problem putting runs on the board and they'll make it back to the playoffs by way of the wild card.
Predictable as my picks to finish first and second may be, I'm sure my prediction for third place will raise some eye brows, but I am picking the Baltimore Orioles to finish .500 for the first time since 1997.
I don't think anyone doubts they're going to score some runs, but I see their young pitching stepping up as well and helping them take a big step forward in 2011.
As I've made clear, I think the Rays and Blue Jays both have bright futures. If either of them played in any other division, I'd pick them to win more than 81 games; someone has to bring up the rear though.
I won't be at all surprised if I'm wrong about the Orioles, and either Tampa Bay or Toronto finishes ahead of them.
While making sense of what order the also-rans finish isn't easy, I think the Red Sox and Yankees are once again the class of this division and no matter who finishes first, I expect to see both in the playoffs this year.