We're midway through spring training, and each team has had two weeks to assess its club as we close in on Opening Day. What's amazing is each of these teams could have the ability to contend if one or two things bounce their way.
In other words, each team has a major question it must answer to push its season well into October.
Can Baltimore really rise up from the cellar? Will Toronto's restocked farm system help the Blue Jays fly high in the AL East? Can Boston return to the postseason after a loaded offseason? Can the Tampa Bay Rays find a way to win their third AL East division crown in four seasons? Can New York and the "Core Three" survive the loss of Andy Pettitte and return to their AL East dominance?
Let's take a look at each team's major question heading into this season.
Baltimore started to turn the corner last season under the managerial leadership of Buck Showalter, and the Orioles added to every part of their team in the offseason.
They added bats and defense through trades for 3B Mark Reynolds and SS J.J. Hardy. They continued to shop in free agency, signing DH Vladimir Guerrero and 1B Derrick Lee.
Add this to a strong outfield core of Adam Jones (.284, 19 HR, 69 RBI), Nick Markakis (.297, 60 extra-base hits, .370 OBP) and Luke Scott (.284, 27 HR, .368 OBP) and you have the makings of a strong offense. And, if Matt Wieters improves and takes steps toward being as good as people thought he would be when he was drafted, this offense has the potential to be not just the best offense in the AL East, but in all of baseball.
Yes, you heard me correctly: I said best offense in baseball.
The question on this team revolves completely around its pitching. The team shored up its bullpen by adding AL East-proven Kevin Gregg, who racked up 37 saves with Toronto last season. The Orioles also added underrated starting pitcher Justin Duchscherer. The former Oakland starter has dealt with injury problems, but had a 2.54 ERA in 2008, making 22 starts.
But the Orioles will only go as far as their young pitching takes them.
25-year-old pitchers Brad Bergesen and Jake Arrieta struggled, as their ERAs were nearly higher than their K/9 rates. Chris Tillman may have been pushed too hard too soon, and was sent back to Triple-A last year, struggling through 11 ineffective starts. At age 22, he's got plenty of time to grow, but after continuing to get shelled in spring training, it doesn't look like his time is now.
The one major positive is the development of the 24-year-old left-hander, Brian Matusz. After the All-Star break, Matusz went 7-3 with a 3.63 ERA, and averaged nearly a strikeout per inning.
If any of the other young pitchers can make some positive development in 2011, this team could spend its summer out of the basement and trying to contend.
For the first time in a long time, Orioles fans may not have to hear "wait 'til next year" in April.
Don't get me wrong. Moving Vernon Wells was one of the best trades of the offseason.
Even if Toronto had received nothing in return, after the team unloaded over $80 million on what was considered an "unmovable" contract, Blue Jays fans should still be doing backflips. The fact that the Jays used one of the pieces acquired in the deal to acquire their 2011 closer (Frank Francisco) makes the deal even sweeter.
And yes, the Blue Jays long-term future hinges on the highly talented and yet-to-reach-its-ceiling starting pitching. A few pitchers made great strides last year:
- Ricky Romero (26 years old, 14-9, 3.73 ERA),
- Brandon Morrow (26 years old, 5-1, 3.69 ERA, 67K in 47 IP after the All-Star break),
- Brett Cecil (24 years old, 15-7, 4.22 ERA),
Add in 23-year-old prospect Kyle Drabek, acquired in the Roy Halladay trade, and 26-year-old Jesse Litsch, who should be fully back from Tommy John surgery, and the Blue Jays have one of the best potential rotations in baseball.
While the long-term future looks bright, the 2011 season will hinge on who will protect Jose Bautista in the lineup.
Bautista had a monster season last year and you can bet that if pitchers have their preference, they'd rather just pitch around him. And if the lineup is weak enough, it's just smart risk-management to let someone else beat you, rather than the team's best hitter.
Especially if no one is up to the job.
In 2010, Adam Lind suffered through a sophomore slump. Aaron Hill battled through injuries. Travis Snider showed promise for later, but not enough for now.
If any or all of these players return to form, the Blue Jays could be ready to be the next team to rise in the AL East.
A lot has already been said on who the Rays have lost—from LF Carl Crawford, to SS Jason Bartlett, SP Matt Garza, Carlos Pena and pretty much their entire bullpen.
But it's more important to look at who's there, versus who is not there, especially since those present are the ones who will determine if the Rays will be winning or losing this season.
The Rays' quiet confidence, held by general manager Andrew Friedman and skipper Joe Maddon, rests on their starting pitching.
The Rays return the AL Cy Young runner-up in David Price (19-6, 2.72 ERA), along with Jeff Niemann (12-8, 4.39 ERA) and second-year starter Wade Davis. Veteran James Shields saw his ERA soar above 5.00 last year, but induced a career-high amount of strikeouts, finishing in the top 10 in the AL in swing-and-misses.
The problem for Shields last year was with the home run. His stats indicate he should be better in 2011. But even if he isn't, few teams have as good and reliable a No. 5 starter (career 4.25 ERA, over 200 IP in last 4 years).
And the Rays trot out their next big thing this season in right-hander Jeremy Hellickson. Having the early-season AL Rookie of the Year in Hellickson gives the Rays one of the best starting fives in baseball.
On offense, the Rays scored over 800 runs last season, despite many of their hitters having down seasons. Even with the defections, the Rays offense looks strong, with the additions of the ex-Idiots in Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. Add in a full season of RF Matt Joyce and a healthy 2B Ben Zobrist, and the Rays very well could duplicate their offensive numbers from a year ago.
The question is: Can they lock down as many games?
The Rays lost all but one of their bullpen members from the start of last season. The Rays will go with a closer-by-committee approach, using relievers such as Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, Adam Russell and Jake McGee.
Farnsworth struggled with his first stint in the AL East as a member of the New York Yankees. But Farnsworth has added a cutter to his repertoire in the last two seasons and has seen extremely positive results.
Over the last two seasons, Farnsworth's numbers have compared very well to former White Sox closer Bobby Jenks, now a member of the Boston Red Sox bullpen.
If the Rays can mold this new bullpen together, and the highly talented Jake McGee could become the closer before long, the Rays have all the other pieces needed to compete again for another AL East division title.
It doesn't take a genius to see the awesome offseason the Boston Red Sox have had.
Adrian Gonzalez. Carl Crawford. Bobby Jenks.
The Red Sox, on paper, look like the favorites. A healthy one-two-three of CF Jacoby Ellsbury, 2B Dustin Pedroia and 3B Kevin Youkilis is not something the Sox had a lot last year, and that is the major reason why Boston missed the playoffs in 2010.
If healthy, Boston's lineup could keep pitchers up at night. Consider:
CF Jacoby Ellsbury
LF Carl Crawford
2B Dustin Pedroia
1B Adrian Gonzalez
3B Kevin Youkilis
DH David Ortiz
RF J.D. Drew
C Jarrod Saltalamacchia
SS Marco Scutaro
I would submit, and I truly mean no disrespect, that the Red Sox, and not the Yankees, appear to have the most feared offense in the AL East this season.
And while the Red Sox bullpen appears strong this year with Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard, along with newcomers Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler, the rotation is what could make this potential "dream season" fall apart.
While the Red Sox rotation features one of the best left-handers in the game in Jon Lester (19-9, 3.25 ERA), the rest of the rotation has major questions.
Is Josh Beckett healthy? Will he hold up for a full season? Is he still as dominant as he used to be, or will injuries affect his performance going forward?
Will John Lackey (14-11, 4.40 ERA) be anything more than average, which is all you could say for him last year? Can Clay Buchholz (17-7, 2.33 ERA) sustain last year's numbers? Will Daisuke Matsuzaka (9-6, 4.69 ERA) bounce back from a 2010 season he would probably rather forget?
Look, the Red Sox have made some major moves in the offseason. But Crawford and Gonzalez will have a hard time upgrading on what C Victor Martinez (.302, 20 HR, 79 RBI) and 3B Adrian Beltre (.321, 28 HR, 102 RBI) provided for the Sox last year.
The real upgrade will need to come from the other (healthy) offensive performers, along with what appears to be a shaky rotation, especially if health gets in the way.
If Beckett is healthy, Lester, Beckett and Buchholz form one of the best potential playoff rotations in the AL. And, if they are healthy, rest assured they will get that chance to keep playing late into October.
In case you missed it, C.C. Sabathia is good. I mean, really good. Like, 20-game winner good (21, to be exact). Like, 26-quality starts good.
In case you missed it, the rest of New York's starting rotation is average. I mean, really average.
Sabathia nearly had more quality starts than the rest of the rotation combined. Phil Hughes looked the part of average after the All-Star break, to the tune of a 4.95 ERA. A.J. Burnett looked completely lost for most of the 2010 season. And the Yankees are couning on retread Freddy Garcia and unproven Ivan Nova to fill out their rotation.
Now, the rest of the Yankees squad is as strong as ever.
Despite hip problems to begin the season, 3B Alex Rodriguez still hit 30 home runs. 1B Mark Teixiera still gave the Bronx Bombers his part of one of baseball's best No. 3 and 4-hitter combinations, contribuing 33 HR and nearly 70 extra-base hits. 2B Robinson Cano had a career year (.319, 29 HR, 109 RBI) and LF Brett Gardner emerged as one of the best leadoff hitters and Gold Glove-caliber left fielders in the AL.
The bullpen is still headed by Mariano Rivera. The Yankees added upgrades in the offseason with Pedro Feliciano (3.30 ERA, 23 holds) and Rafael Soriano (1.73 ERA, 45 saves), who was arguably the best reliever in the AL in 2010.
But the Yankees will need someone to step up besides Sabathia in the rotation if they want to compete and win the toughest division in baseball. And the potential is there.
Hughes should be ready for the rigors of a full season of starts. Nova managed to hold his own pitching under the New York spotlight, which is something not many pitchers have been able to accomplish.
But the key to the rotation really is Burnett. If he can regain the form and stuff that made the Yankees sink over $80 million into his right arm, the New York rotation could be playoff bound.