Welcome to the first installment of seven in this preseason breakdown of each MLB division. The first six articles will cover the divisions, and the seventh will predict the playoffs and major award winners. Each team will have its offseason moves broken down, one major strength and weakness identified, one X-factor selected and then their projected record for the 2011 season. The order of the slideshows will be from last to first in the division. We start today with the American League East.
Acquired: Jon Rauch, Octavio Dotel, Rajai Davis, Mike Napoli, Frank Francisco, Brett Lawrie, Carlos Villanueva
Lost: Shaun Marcum, Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay, John Buck
Toronto's pitching will be a huge factor in the success they see during 2011. Although they traded Marcum to the Milwaukee Brewers, they still have a solid rotation with Ricky Romero leading the way, followed by Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil, Kyle Drabek, and then either Jesse Litsch or Marc Rzepczynski.
In the bullpen, the Jays picked up a host of good relief arms. Francisco now mans the back end, with Dotel and Rauch added for late inning help. Reliable arms Jason Frasor, Casey Janssen, and Shawn Camp will primarily see action in the middle innings.
There are a lot of good, young arms in the Toronto organization right now, with 2010 first round draft pick Deck McGuire and other top prospects Zach Stewart and Asher Wojciechowski working their way through the minor leagues. For now, however, the Blue Jays have a solid pitching core for 2011.
Catcher J.P. Arencibia has been tagged as the opening day starter behind the plate for Toronto with veteran Jose Molina backing him up. Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, Arencibia has a total of 37 major league plate appearances, hitting .143 with two home runs and four RBI. In his minor league years, however, he hit .275/83/290 over three minor league seasons and one year in the New York-Penn League, so there's room to grow. Runners stole on him at a 72% clip in the minors. He's only had a cup of coffee in the majors so far, but the Jays are putting a decent amount of risk in starting the season with Arencibia.
.260/54/124. There is almost no chance that Jose Bautista will ever have a single-season stat line like that again in his career. He's 30 years old, and his 54 home runs from 2010 raised his career total to 113. Suffice it to say that Bautista will regress in 2011, but how much is the question. If he slips to, say, .255/38/105, I'm sure that Toronto fans would be just happy with that. But if he put up numbers similar to his 2009 campaign of .235/13/40 (in 113 games, so extrapolate), the massive contract extension he signed during the offseason will look like a huge waste.
As always, the AL East is stacked. Toronto finished 85-77 and fourth in the AL East last year. Although Tampa Bay certainly got worse after losing much of their core, they still retained enough players to stay ahead of Toronto, and the good feelings that came with Buck Showalter in Baltimore kept shaking through that franchise during the offseason. Toronto will fall back under .500 this year, but don't count them out in the near future.
Acquired: Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, Kyle Farnsworth
Lost: Carl Crawford, Matt Garza, Carlos Pena, Grant Balfour, Jason Bartlett, Dan Wheeler, Lance Cormier
Just like Toronto, Tampa Bay has a young, powerful core of starting pitchers. Unlike Toronto, Tampa's is just a bit better. David Price, James Shields, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson bring a lot to the table in terms of run control and innings, which will be key for the Rays in 2011.
They'll need their starters to keep opposing runs off the board and leave as little to their weakened bullpen as possible. These five starters (plus Andy Sonnanstine in a pinch) can certainly keep the Rays in games, but they'll need to be outstanding to keep this club, that's noticeably weaker than its 2010 edition, in the AL East mix.
The Rays' depth chart online lists starting right fielder Ben Zobrist as the backup at second base and shortstop, starting left fielder Johnny Damon as the backup at first base, and starting first baseman Dan Johnson as the backup at third base. Clearly, the Rays have an issue with position depth this year.
Although it's true that big-time outfield prospect Desmond Jennings is waiting in the wings, he's blocked at each position. The aging Damon is manning left, although he might split time with Jennings, and B.J. Upton and Ben Zobrist are essentially locked into their positions in center and right field respectively. The Rays are typically lauded for their minor league organizations and may need to draw from that pool multiple times during the season.
With Crawford, Pena and Bartlett out of the picture, Evan Longoria has become the focal point of the Tampa Bay offense. He'll absolutely have to have his first year as a .300-plus hitter, with at least 25 home runs and 100 RBI, for this offense to have even a slight resemblance to what it was last year. No one is pretending that Ramirez and Damon will fill the shoes of Pena and Crawford. Longoria knows that he is the key to Tampa Bay's offensive success this year. Will the pressure get to him, or will he surpass expectations? We'll have to wait and see.
Unfortunately for the Tampa Bay Rays, owner Stuart Sternberg wanted a massive payroll cut, and it came at the expense of key players. The cogs of last year's offense and bullpen, save a few names, are in other major league cities this year and the loss of those players will show for Tampa Bay. They'll keep one foot in the ring as long as they can, but this team won't make it to October.
Acquired: Vladimir Guerrero, Mark Reynolds, J.J. Hardy, Kevin Gregg, Derrek Lee, Justin Duchscherer, Jeremy Accardo
Lost: David Hernandez, Kevin Millwood, Garrett Atkins, Ty Wigginton
The revamped Orioles offense was one of the biggest stories of the 2010 offseason. Baltimore added three new infielders in Reynolds, Hardy and Lee, and snatched Guerrero away from Texas to have a better designated hitter (sorry, Luke Scott).
Although Baltimore was 13th in runs scored for American League teams in 2010, expect them to have a much better and more consistent offense this year. Reynolds and Lee replace Wigginton and Atkins at the corners, marking significant upgrades at both positions. Reynolds will have to cut down his strikeouts, but his move from the NL to the AL could have a reverse effect from what pitchers experience heading to the NL. He'll have a little more protection in Baltimore and has a chance to be a key power hitter for the Orioles this season.
I attended a couple Orioles games in the 2010 season, and the biggest knock on the team was that their starters seemed to lose all effectiveness after six innings. One game in particular saw Brian Matusz controlling the Rays through six then losing his bearings during the seventh. The Oriole starters need to stretch themselves out more and get deeper into games. The bullpen isn't awful, but it's not incredible either. For Baltimore to have a chance of using the power of Buck Showalter and their new offense to make a run to October, the rotation is going to have to step up big.
Matt Wieters is still being hailed as the next true face of Baltimore baseball. To fulfill that so-called prophecy, Wieters will need to show the offensive skills expected of such a high-ranking prospect this year. In 2010, he hit .249/11/55 over 130 games; that kind of production won't cut it for the Baltimore faithful for another year. Ideally, Wieters should get to 20 home runs and perhaps 75 RBI with an average bump to really help his team out from a position that doesn't provide as much offense as it used to. Will Wieters prove that he is The One for Baltimore?
Baseball is slowly stirring in Baltimore again. Fans are starting to get excited about the team for the first time in a while, and I can't wait to take in an April game at Camden Yards with a half-smoke (so good!) and see how this team has come together. They're certainly not ready for the big time, but they're starting to climb the ladder a bit.
Acquired: Andruw Jones, Rafael Soriano, Pedro Feliciano, Russell Martin, Justin Maxwell
Lost: Alfredo Aceves, Andy Pettitte, Javier Vasquez, Kerry Wood, Lance Berkman
As usual, the Yankee offense will be a dominant force in the major leagues. Scoring 859 runs last year, the offense is always stacked, whether it's with speed (Brett Gardner), contact (Robinson Cano) or power (Alex Rodriguez). Although it can slump from time to time, this offense is always one of the best in baseball and will reprise that notion in 2011. Derek Jeter might have another down year, but Cano and Rodriguez will power an offense that strikes fear in the hearts of opponents.
To (poorly) rip off the old adage of "Spahn and Sain, then pray for rain," Yankee fans will have Sabathia and Hughes, then head to the pews. A.J. Burnett posted a 10-15 record with a 5.26 ERA last year, and Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre are sub-par at the fourth and fifth slots in the rotation.
The Bronx Bombers have a couple of young studs on the farm with Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos, but Nova isn't even considered the top pitching prospect the Yankees have, with one outlet calling him "a competent fourth starter." However, competent isn't enough for Cashman and the Steinbrenners.
If Nova and the rest of the back end don't pick up their game, they could be out of the rotation when summer hits.
The Yankees gave up a lot to acquire Curtis Granderson. Pitching prospects Ian Kennedy and Phil Coke and star outfield prospect Austin Jackson were sent out to bring Detroit's five-tool outfielder to the Bronx. Jackson showed a lot of promise in 2010 for the Tigers. That's not to say that Granderson had a bad year, but to make the trade worth it, he's going to need to step up a little bit in Yankee Stadium.
A solid left-handed hitter, Granderson should be taking more advantage of the short porch in right as well as the deep power alleys to pick up home runs and extra base hits. If Granderson can pick up his numbers, the Yankees could be a greater threat to be the best team in the majors.
Now that Tampa Bay has powered down, the AL East has returned to a two-horse race between the Yankees and Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox won the offseason arms race, but with some improved performances and lucky breaks, the Yankees could have a chance to win the pennant race.
Acquired: Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Dan Wheeler, Bobby Jenks, Alfredo Aceves
Lost: Jeremy Hermida, Mike Lowell, Adrian Beltre, Victor Martinez
As good as the Yankees offense is, the Red Sox offense has the chance to be even better. They added Gonzalez and Crawford while keeping all of their other 2010 starters. The addition of Gonzalez and Crawford to a lineup already containing Jacoby Ellsbury, Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz among others is frightening for American League teams.
The Red Sox could easily outscore the Yankees, potentially putting up close to 900 runs during 2011. Boston has an impressive blend of speed, contact and power in their order, and the potential permutations of a successful Red Sox lineup almost seem endless. Even though the Sox have a strong rotation as well, their offense is clearly the shining jewel for 2011.
It's not exactly easy to find weaknesses in a team being projected to win a division, but every club has them. For Boston, it's middle relief. The three guys that will see the brunt of the action in the middle innings are Scott Atchison (will be 35 when the season starts), Hideki Okajima (36) and Dan Wheeler (34).
Wheeler had the best 2010 at 2-4 with a 3.35 ERA while Okajima and Atchison posted matching 4.50 marks. Tim Wakefield is a long man or a spot starter, and other relief options for the Red Sox on their current listed roster include Felix Doubront, Alfredo Aceves and Junichi Tazawa. Those names don't exactly instill fear in an opponent. The Red Sox will need to have their starters go deep to avoid games falling in the risky waters of middle relief.
There have been countless articles about whether or not Ortiz has finally started to go downhill in his career. After posting a line of .270/32/102 last year, Ortiz silenced some of his critics. But at age 35, this could be the last hurrah for Ortiz in a Red Sox uniform. If he can put up numbers similar to what he did in 2010, Ortiz could be praised in New England all over again.
If he regresses to a stat line like 2008 (.264/23/89) or 2002 (.272/20/75 with Minnesota), fans will be quick to pounce on the aging slugger and call him washed-up with no remorse. With his massive swing and natural power, Ortiz is a 30 home run candidate, but Red Sox Nation just hopes he can make it through this season.
The Red Sox are the clear American League favorites for 2011. They have a dynamite offense, a certainly above-average pitching staff, and a great manager in Terry Francona. Even Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has tabbed the Red Sox as the best team on the junior circuit. Boston has a lot of expectations to live up to in 2011, and I expect that they will pass them with flying colors.