MLB Preview: A Look at the AL East
The American League East is the best division in baseball. It really isn't close. The Red Sox are arguably the best team in baseball and the Yankees aren't too far behind. The Rays had the best record in baseball last season. The Toronto Blue Jays were over .500 and even the Orioles didn't play too poorly down the stretch.
As good as we know this division will be, it's far from decided. The Sox and Yankees are obviously playoff favorites, but how will these teams finish? What players are likely to bounce back, breakout, or otherwise exceed expectations this season? Who's going to disappoint?
5. Baltimore Orioles
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As bad as the Orioles looked early last season, the team finished strong under manager Buck Showalter and there’s enough talent that it’s not hard to imagine the Orioles fielding a .500 team as soon as 2011.
The lineup is legit, and just about every player on that team has been a very good player at one point or another: Derek Lee and Mark Reynolds were MVP candidates as recently as 2009, Roberts is a former All-Star, Hardy is a former All-Star, Jones is a former All-Star, Nick Markakis OPS neared .900 in 2008 when he was 24, Matt Wieters was the best prospect in baseball heading into 2009 and Luke Scott has 75 home runs the past three years. Even Felix Pie was once a huge prospect and is still young enough to become a solid Major League starter.
The rotation is another story right now, but if Matusz breaks out ala Clayton Kershaw a couple of years ago, along with Jeremy Guthrie, Brad Bergesen, Jake Arrieta and Kevin Millwood… there's something there. Maybe they don’t finish last.
JJ Hardy has had a tough couple of seasons, but his 2010 wasn’t really that bad. Hardy’s strikeouts returned to a normal level, as did his BABIP and he nearly hit .270. His power is still MIA, but a wrist injury could explain that. He’s a good player who will find a spot in the lineup every day due to his plus glove and solid big league bat, but he could be much better if he stays healthy and shows some of that power we know is there.
It’s tough to find a bust on this team. Most of these guys are coming off seasons that do not fully represent their level of talent and even the ones that impressed last year, (think Brian Matusz) are more likely undervalued than overvalued.
But Jeremy Guthrie is probably the most likely player on this roster to disappoint. Guthrie’s 2007 and 2008 seasons were very solid, but his 2009 season made it abundantly clear what can happen to a pitcher that can’t strike big league batters out. He’s gone from a control pitcher to a guy who simply doesn’t have an out pitch, and while he’s not a terribly big name, people see him as a solid, consistent No. 2 starting pitcher. If he strikes out a batter every two innings, he’s not a No. 2 starter, and he’s probably not a No. 3 either.
4. Tampa Bay Rays
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The Tampa Bay Rays lost a lot this off-season. They lost their best or second best player in Carl Crawford, an MVP candidate in his prime. They lost their first baseman and cleanup hitter in Carlos Pena. They lost their No. 2 or No. 3 starter in Matt Garza. They also lost essentially their entire bullpen, including three of the best relievers in baseball from last season – Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, and Grant Balfour.
This team is still talented. David Price is developing into a true No. 1 starter, Evan Longoria is arguably the best player in the American League and BJ Upton is a good, albeit disappointing player. But they lost too much. This team is unlikely to compete.
James Shields is, on the surface, a very puzzling player. He’s now 29-years-old, right in the middle of his prime. After a 3.85 and 3.56 ERA in his first two full seasons as a big league starter, he looked like one of the better starting pitchers in baseball.
His 4.14 ERA in 2009 looked like a minor blip on the radar, though it did drop his stock in some people’s eyes. Then he seemingly imploded, going 13-15 with a 5.18 ERA last year.
His age and track-record would be enough to bet on a rebound, but more importantly, all of Shields’ underlying numbers were as good if not better than his established norm. Shields struck out 8.3 batters per nine innings, the highest level of his career, and walked just 2.26 per nine, right around his career norm. He's also topped 200 innings in each season since 2007. He’ll be ok.
There really isn’t one. David Price might not repeat his 2010 season as I don’t think he’s quite as good as he showed last season just yet. But he’s very good, he’s very young, and he’s going to be one of the best pitchers in the league for a long time. Bust is really the wrong word, and I’d be shocked if he wasn’t an All-Star caliber starting pitcher again next season.
Maybe the Tampa Bay Rays as a whole should be considered the bust. This team won 97 games last season. If they win 85 this season, that’ll be a good year. Everyone needs to adjust their expectations. There is an outside shot this team finishes in last place.
3. Toronto Blue Jays
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If the Blue Jays were in any other division, they’d be a serious playoff contender right now, but with the Yankees and Red Sox ahead of them, catching up will not be easy.
They took a huge step forward last season though, putting one of the best offenses in baseball on the field led by breakout MVP-candidate Jose Bautista. The rotation might not get the same kind of attention, but Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow are a capable 1-2 punch. Neither is an ace right now, but Morrow has that kind of upside. Brett Cecil made strides last season as a 23-year-old and Kyle Drabek is perhaps the Jays best prospect.
Those four young, cheap starting pitchers, along with a tremendous lineup and solid bullpen, give the Jays their most talented opening day roster in recent memory.
Boy, there are a lot. This is a team that doesn’t get the kind of attention it should. Brandon Morrow has always had special stuff, but a combination of injuries and poor control have prevented him from succeeding as a big league starting pitcher. The injuries are a still an issue – and it’s not like the walks disappeared—but Morrow gave everyone a hint of his upside last season.
His 4.49 ERA in 146 innings isn’t an eye-popping figure, but he struck out 10.9 batters per nine innings, the highest K/9 among American League starters last season. If Morrow can stay healthy and throw 200 innings, he could be a Cy Young caliber starting pitcher. That’s a big if, and it might not happen next year, but don’t discount his talent.
Also, watch out for Aaron Hill. He had a BABIP under .200 last season. That’s not going to stay there. He might not hit 36 homers again, but he’ll hit for an OK average and slug with the best second baseman out there.
Just about every player on this roster is under the radar, and even Jose Bautista is getting far too little credit for hitting 54 home runs last season. If there’s one guy on this roster that could fail to live up to his hype though, it’s Kyle Drabek.
Obviously, there is significant risk with rookie starting pitchers. As much as we focus on the Stephen Strasburg and Francisco Liriano type debuts, most pitchers don’t make a big impact right away. Drabek has yet to make a start in AAA, and after dominating the Florida Coast League in 2009, he hasn’t been quite as good in AA. As good as his stuff is (most scouts believe he can develop into at least a No. 2 starter) he doesn’t miss many bats yet, and he throws too many balls outside of the strike zone. Long term, Drabek could be a very good pitcher. Assuming he makes the big league rotation though, he could struggle this year.
2. New York Yankees
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The Yankees are the Red Sox minus one front-line starting pitcher. The lineup is, as always, one of the best in baseball. Derek Jeter and Nick Swisher get on base, and the trio of Teixeira, Rodriguez and Cano can drive them in.
The bullpen is the class of the AL East, if not baseball. The rotation? A big question mark. CC Sabathia is one of the best pitchers in the league, an ace. But as talented as Phil Hughes is, he’s probably more of a No. 3 starter right now. Can he take the next step in 2011 to form a deadly 1-2 punch with Sabathia? Can AJ Burnett bounce back from a terrible 2010 and pitch like the No. 2 starter the Yankees paid him to be? Can a combination of Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, Sergio Mitre, and Ivan Nova keep the Yankees in games?
If this team brings in another No. 1 or No. 2 starter (think Chris Carpenter or Francisco Liriano), they can win this division and maybe a World Series. As of now they’re a Wild Card team and not nearly as scary in the playoffs as they have been the past two years.
For the first time in his career, Alex Rodriguez enters a season far from the center of attention. More ink has been spilled on Jesus Montero than the three time American League MVP, and despite being a trendy sleeper pick, Rodriguez looks to many like a superstar in a graceful period of decline. It’s fair.
His OPS has dropped from 1.067, to .965, to .933, and finally to .847 last season. Yet outside of 2010, Rodriguez has still been an elite offensive force during this decline. In fact, he hit better in 2008 and in 2009 than he did in 2004 and 2006, the evenly-numbered seasons sandwiched between his ’03, ’05 and ’07 MVP seasons.
Rodriguez has battled injuries since ’08, playing in fewer than 140 games each of the past three years. But he enters camp in great shape, and could easily prove 2010 an outlier rather than the beginning of the end. I refuse to bet against this guy.
Right fielder Nick Swisher has proven to be one of Brian Cashman’s most prudent acquisitions. Entering his third season in the Bronx, Swisher is a fan favorite and positive clubhouse influence. He had perhaps his best season in 2010—unquestionably his best from a fantasy perspective—and while Swisher will always be a good source for homers and RBIs, he’s unlikely to fully repeat his 2010 performance.
The always patient Swisher saw his walk rate tumble from 16 percent—one of the best in baseball—to just 9.1 percent—a rather pedestrian figure. Swisher is a .250 hitter who hit .288 last season, and many guessed that his less patient approach led to his higher batting average. But his strikeout rate was as high as ever and his BABIP of .335 is probably unsustainable. He'll hit for power, but he's a .250 hitter and his lack of patience last season is concerning.
1. Boston Red Sox
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The Red Sox made headlines this off-season, signing Carl Crawford and trading for Adrian Gonzalez. When you acquire two MVP caliber players, you deserve any attention that comes your way, and the Red Sox did make themselves a lot better.
But too little attention has been paid to the loss of Adrian Beltre (7.1 WAR) and Victor Martinez (4.0 WAR). They lost 11 wins off their 2010 roster, so even with Crawford and Gonzalez, they’ll need some serious bounce back seasons from Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Josh Beckett and John Lackey to meet or exceed expectations. Those are some talented players; don’t bet against it.
Health derailed Josh Beckett’s 2010 season, and he finished with a career worst 5.78 ERA while striking out just 116 batters, his lowest total since 2002. Despite these struggles, Beckett still has an almost unparalleled combination of pure stuff and command to go along with a long track record of dominance. He still struck out nearly a batter an inning last year, and adding a cutter to his repertoire could help keep stress of his arm as he moves into his 30's.
Similarly, John Lackey, who became one of the highest paid pitchers in baseball a year ago, had a poor first season in Boston. He picked up his play down the stretch though and as a picture of consistency over the past half decade, he’s also a safe bet to rebound.
After a couple years spent between AAA and the big leagues struggling with his command, former top-prospect Clay Buchholz had an apparent breakout season in 2010, going 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA. These numbers make Buchholz look like an ace; his underlying numbers tell us he isn’t there yet.
Buchholz struck out just 6.22 batters per nine innings last year, bellow league average, while also demonstrating bellow average control, walking nearly 3.5 batters per nine. He kept the ball on the ground at a good rate (50.3 percent), but was probably just a bit lucky on flyballs (5.6 percent HR/FB). His FIP (3.60) and expected FIP (4.20) are probably better baselines for 2011.
At 26, Buchholz is just entering his prime and should improve next season. But even dramatic improvement will not allow him to repeat 2010. Expect a good win/loss record and an ERA in the high three area, with reasonable but probably bellow average strikeout totals. Good, but not what he showed us last season.