American League East 2011: 15 Players To Watch During Spring Training

Bleacher ReportCorrespondent IFebruary 11, 2011

American League East 2011: 15 Players to Watch During Spring Training

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    NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 24:  Josh Beckett #19 of the Boston Red Sox pitches against the New York Yankees on September 24, 2010 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
    Andrew Burton/Getty Images

    Spring training is a great opportunity to get a sense of how a player's offseason went, and what to expect in terms of improvement or regression. How a player performs during spring training often helps scouts see how players are recovering from injury or whether or not to expect a player who disappointed the previous season to bounce back.

    An example of a player's spring training being indicative of a player's regular season performance is Chris Johnson. In 2010, his spring training stat line was: .323/8/22 in just 63 at-bats. While he did not continue this 65-75 home run pace, he did have a strong season. The same idea goes for Jose Bautista, who had a phenomenal spring training.

    Spring training is not always accurate, however, it is the best way to get an idea of a player before the season starts. So, in this article, I will examine the 15 most important players to watch this spring training in the American League East.

    This list includes prospects, bounce back candidates, new acquisitions and more. The rank is based on a combination of how important the player's return is to his respective team and how controversial the player's 2011 projections are. 

Honorable Mention

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    ST PETERSBURG, FL - FEBRUARY 01:  Johnny Damon #22 and Manny Ramirez #24 of the Tampa Bay Rays talk with reporters at a press conference at Tropicana Field on February 1, 2011 in St Petersburg, Florida.  (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
    J. Meric/Getty Images

    Mark Reynolds, Baltimore Orioles

    2010 Stat line: .320 On-base Percentage, .433 Slugging Percentage, .753 On-base Plus Slugging

    Career Stat line: .334/.483/.817

    Watch for: Rebound Overall

    Jesus Montero, New York Yankees

    Has yet to play in MLB.

    Watch for: Minor League production translating to Major League production (or not)

    Manny Ramirez, Tampa Bay Rays

    2010 Stat line: .409/.460/.869

    Career Stat line: .411/.586/.998

    Watch for: Rebound in Power

    Aaron Hill, Toronto Blue Jays

    2010 Stat line: .271/.394/.665

    Career Stat line: .325/.427/.752

    Watch for: Rebound in On-base Percentage

    Johnny Damon, Tampa Bay Rays

    2010 Stat line: .355/.401/.756

    Career Stat line: .355/.436/.791

    Watch for: Regression

15. Daisuke Matsuzaka, Boston Red Sox

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    NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 26:  Daisuke Matsuzaka #18 of the Boston Red Sox delivers a pitch in the first-inning against the New York Yankees on September 26, 2010 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
    Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    While it is clear that Matsuzaka will never again reproduce his 20-3, 2.90 earned run average season of 2008, he still has the potential to be a top end starting pitcher in the MLB. 

    In seasons when Matsuzaka's earned run average was below 4.50 and he pitched at least 150.0 innings, the Red Sox have made the playoffs. In Matsuzaka's other two seasons, the Red Sox have made the playoffs once. The inability to reach the postseason in 2010 was clearly a result of a lack of starting pitching depth and a weak bullpen. Matsuzaka has the ability to fill one of those two holes.

    Matsuzaka did show some signs of life in 2010 despite popular notion. In the months of June, July, and August, Matsuzaka went 5-2 with a 3.55 earned run average. If you were to remove the month of September from his season, Matsuzaka would have gone 8-4 with a 4.17 earned run average in 2011. 

    He has the potential to be a difference maker, though he may be a difference maker in a negative way.

14. J.P. Arencibia, Toronto Blue Jays

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    DUNEDIN, FL - FEBRUARY 23:  JP Arencibia #9 of the Toronto Blue Jays poses during photo day at the Bobby Mattick Training Center at Englebert Complex on February 23, 2009 in Dunedin, Florida.  (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
    J. Meric/Getty Images

    J.P. Arencibia is one of the most talked about prospects due to his incredible production in the minors. He will finally be given the opportunity to start for Toronto in 2011, and if he lives up to expectations, the Jays may finish the season with one of the elite offenses. Though living up to expectations is not a guarantee when it comes to prospects. 

    In Arencibia's last 1388 minor league at-bats, he has belted 80 home runs. If that were to translate to the majors, Arencibia could be a threat to hit 35 home runs, though that would be outlandish for a rookie catcher. To compliment his power, Arencibia has hit .278 since 2008, and .301 in 2010. 

    Arencibia should get a solid amount of playing time this spring, so keep an eye on him to get a sense of how his rookie season will pan out. He could be the deciding factor as to whether Toronto takes significant steps forward. 

13. Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays

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    TORONTO - SEPTEMBER 23:   Jose Bautista #19 of the Toronto Blue Jays bats during the game against the Seattle Mariners on September 23, 2010 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Blue Jays defeated the Mariners 1-0. (Photo by Brad White/Getty
    Brad White/Getty Images

    Jose Bautista was the most crucial player in the Blue Jays' offense in 2010. His 54 home runs characterized the Jays' offense and carried them to a top 10 finish in runs scored.

    However, it would be wise to be skeptical of Bautista's breakout season, as it came out of the blue. In seasons where Bautista had 300+ at-bats, he had only hit above .250 once (2007). However, he hit .260 in 2010. More importantly, Bautista had never exceeded 16 home runs prior to his 2010 outburst. His home run per fly ball percentage increased by 9.4 in 2010, an important stat to acknowledge. 

    I am not suggesting that Bautista's 54 home runs were a complete fluke, but rather that you should watch him closely throughout spring training to confirm that his 2010 season was legitimate. The Jays are significantly less intimidating without Bautista, therefore it is critical that he regresses as little as possible. 

12. Derrek Lee, Baltimore Orioles

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    ATLANTA - OCTOBER 10:  Derrek Lee #27 of the Atlanta Braves reacts after striking out against the San Francisco Giants during Game Three of the NLDS of the 2010 MLB Playoffs at Turner Field on October 10, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    The Orioles pitching staff appears to be very weak at this point, therefore it is their offense that the Orioles will be relying on this season. Derrek Lee is one of the many players the Orioles acquired to improve their previously woeful offense.

    Lee signed a one year deal with the Orioles with the hopes of resurrecting his career. While Lee struggled mightily in 2010, he has contended for the Triple Crown before in his career, and it is not out of the question that he could hit .300 with 30+ home runs again. While the Orioles do have many other offensive weapons, Lee will be one of their main sources of runs production thus he is invaluable to the team.

    Look for Lee to have made some improvements this offseason in spring training.  

11. Chris Tillman, Baltimore Orioles

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    BALTIMORE - SEPTEMBER 19:  Chris Tillman #24 of the Baltimore Orioles pitches against the New York Yankees at Camden Yards on September 19, 2010 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
    Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    To say that Chris Tillman has been a disappointment would be an understatement. For someone who was ranked as the 16th best prospect in 2008, the Orioles have the right to be upset with Tillman's first two major league seasons.

    However, all hope is not lost in Tillman. He is just 22 years old, and his minor league stats scream to wait a little longer before calling Tillman a bust. He may simply be a late bloomer.

    That is the hope for Orioles fans, as Tillman will be a crucial part of the Orioles success if he is able to develop into the number two starter he has the potential to be. Along with Brian Matusz, the Orioles pitching staff may surprise people. This aspect of their roster will be under the most pressure in 2011, as the offense appears to be in good shape. Tillman has a lot on his plate for a 22-year-old, though the potential benefits are huge. 

10. Kyle Drabek, Toronto Blue Jays

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    TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 28: Kyle Drabek #4 of the Toronto Blue Jays regroups after a run scores against the New York Yankees during an MLB game at the Rogers Centre September 28, 2010 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
    Abelimages/Getty Images

    In his first three starts in the majors, Drabek went 0-3 with a 4.76 earned run average. To be fair, his team scored an aggregate of five runs in those games. Regardless, those numbers do not reflect Drabek's potential to the slightest. 

    Drabek has been dominating minor league pitching for three years now, going 14-9 with a 2.94 earned run average in 2010. He has gone 26-12 in the minors in the past two seasons, a testament to his ability to win games. 

    Drabek has a lot of things to work on, namely his ability to go deep into games. He averaged six innings per start on the dot in 2010, which is not bad by any means, however given the hype surrounding him, that number should rise over the years. 

    In 2011, the Jays are poised to have one of the better offenses in the leagues, though it is Drabek who is the key for them. If he is able to pitch at a number two starter level, the Jays may transcend the Rays and/or Yankees this season. 

9. Brian Matusz, Baltimore Orioles

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    BALTIMORE - AUGUST 31:  Brian Matusz #17 of the Baltimore Orioles pitches against the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards on August 31, 2010 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
    Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    The Orioles made a number of moves this offseason that will bolster their offense. They acquired Vladimir Guerrero, Derek Lee, Mark Reynolds and J.J. Hardy. However, they did nothing to improve their starting rotation. This may lead to a poor season once again for Baltimore, unless of course Brian Matusz is able to produce ace-like numbers. 

    In 2010, Matusz went 10-12, maintaining a 4.30 earned run average. He did show improvement in the second half of the season, as his earned run average dropped to 3.63, and he managed a 7-3 record. In 2009 in the minors, Matusz went 11-2 with a 1.91 earned run average. Those numbers are more reflective of Matusz's potential.

    Matusz will certainly have a bright future; the question is whether it will begin in 2011. 

8. Ivan Nova, New York Yankeses

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    BOSTON - OCTOBER 2:  Ivan Nova #47 of the New York Yankees reacts in the ninth against the Boston Red Sox in the second game of a doubleheader at Fenway Park, October 2, 2010, in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    After the news broke that Andy Pettitte was officially retiring, many Yankee fans cringed, as their rotation is now significantly less impressive. Their lack of depth will linger throughout the season undoubtedly. However, the damage can be limited to an extent if young prospect Ivan Nova is able to reach his full potential in 2011. 

    In 2010, Nova boasted a 12-3 record with a 2.86 earned run average in the minors, pitching 145.0 innings. Nova has been highly touted, however he has shown vulnerability. In the majors in 2010, Nova had a poor 26:17 strikeout to walk ratio. This is not to diminish his potential, though prospects do not always pan out. Look for Nova to reestablish his command during spring training, and if his is able to, Yankees fans should be confident heading into 2011. 

7. Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston Red Sox

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    BOSTON - APRIL 06:  Jacoby Ellsbury #2 leads away from Mark Teixeira #25 of the New York Yankees at Fenway Park on April 6, 2010 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    Jacoby Ellsbury is an integral part of the Red Sox offense. Without him, the lineup is significantly less daunting. The Red Sox have made the playoffs in every season he has been a full-year starter, however when he was on the disabled list in 2010, they failed to reach the post season.

    Ellsbury is returning from an injury he suffered in 2010 and is expected to assume a starting role by Opening Day, however there have been reports that he might not be 100 percent by that date. 

    Ellsbury stole a combined 120 bases in 2008 and 2009, an unparalleled figure during that span. He is just 27 years old, and prior to his injury was becoming a core player for the Red Sox. If Ellsbury is able to return to his 2009 form, the Red Sox will boast the most dynamic offense in the league, however that is certainly not a guarantee. Keep an eye on Ellsbury this spring training. 

6. Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay Rays

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    OAKLAND, CA - AUGUST 20:  Jeremy Hellickson #58 of the Tampa Bay Rays bats against the Oakland Athletics at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum  on August 20, 2010 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Due to the vast amount of losses the Rays suffered this winter, they will be relying heavily on their young prospects in 2011. The loss of Matt Garza, the Rays best pitcher in 2010, means that Hellickson will have to step up and assume a major role in Tampa this season.

    Hellickson has dominated minor league hitting in his career. In 2010, he went 12-3 with a 2.72 earned run average. Dating back to 2006, Hellickson has not had a season in the minors in which his earned run average was 3.00 or higher. He has also had major league success; in 2010 he posted a flawless 4-0 record with a 3.47 earned run average, striking out 33 batters and walking a mere eight.

    The Rays are desperate for their young talents to bloom, thus Hellickson is a player to watch, as he has the tools to be that player.

5. Jonathan Papelbon, Boston Red Sox

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    NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 26:  Jonathan Papelbon #58 of the Boston Red Sox looks on aganist the New York Yankees bunt attempt in the 10th inning on September 26, 2010 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. The Yankees won 4-3.  (Photo by Mike
    Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    Red Sox fans know all too well how important a bullpen is. In 2010, while their starting pitching was poor, the argument can be made the their bullpen was the reason they missed the playoffs. The Red Sox' bullpen ranked 23rd in bullpen earned run average, posting a miserable 4.24. Their 19-23 record was unacceptable for a playoff contender.

    Much of the blame should be on the Red Sox' closer, Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon had the worst season of his career as closer for Boston, posting a 3.90 earned run average. His control was shaky and hitters hit him harder than usual. Since 2006, the Red Sox have made the playoffs in three of Papelbon's sub-2.50 earned run average seasons.

    The entire Red Sox bullpen is a question mark this season, however Papelbon's performance is the most important. 

4. Adrian Gonzalez, Boston Red Sox

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    BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 06:  Adrian Gonzalez (R) ooks on as General Manager Theo Epstein answers questions during a press conference to announce Gonzalez signing with the Boston Red Sox on December 6,  2010 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo b
    Elsa/Getty Images

    Gonzalez may not be thought of as a risk for the Red Sox in 2011, however he is certainly not a guarantee. Gonzalez injured his shoulder in 2010 and is still rehabilitating. He has claimed that he is ahead of schedule, however injuries are always important to note. He is questionable for the start of spring training according to news reports. 

    Of course, if Gonzalez returns healthy and does not miss a beat, his production for the Red Sox may carry their offense to the playoffs regardless of their pitching. Gonzalez showed his ability to lead an offense by carrying the Padres offense on his back in 2010, almost reaching the playoffs. Gonzalez hit .298 with 31 home runs in 2010, though he has the potential to hit 40, especially in an ideal ballpark such as Fenway Park.

    Gonzalez is not a huge risk, though his value to the Red Sox is so huge that he is one of the top players to keep tabs on this March. 

3. Desmond Jennings, Tampa Bay Rays

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    ST. PETERSBURG - OCTOBER 07:  Outfielder Desmond Jennings #27 of the Tampa Bay Rays catches a foul ball against the Texas Rangers during Game 2 of the ALDS at Tropicana Field on October 7, 2010 in St. Petersburg, Florida.  (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
    J. Meric/Getty Images

    The Rays lost the face of their franchise this winter in Carl Crawford. It is undeniable that Crawford was the driving force behind the Rays success over the last three years. Replacing his .307/110/19/90/47 stat line and Gold Glove Award is a lofty task for 24-year-old Jennings, and it is unlikely that he will be able to even come close to those stats.

    However, if Jennings is able to play at an above average level, he will make the Rays' offseason losses seem less significant. The Rays have made it clear that they plan on vying for a playoff spot this season despite their many losses, and whether they are able to accomplish their goals depends a lot on the Jennings.

    In the minors, Jennings has displayed tremendous talent. In 2009, he hit .318 and stole 52 bases in only 132 games. He is also not power deficient, as he managed 11 home runs in 2009 as well. If that talent translates of to the majors, Rays doubters may be in for a surprise. That is a big 'if', though. 

2. Phil Hughes, New York Yankees

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    NEW YORK - OCTOBER 09:  Starting pitcher Phil Hughes #65 of the New York Yankees throws a pitch in the first inning against the Minnesota Twins during Game Three of the ALDS part of the 2010 MLB Playoffs at Yankee Stadium on October 9, 2010 in the Bronx b
    Andrew Burton/Getty Images

    The Yankees have a questionable at best starting rotation drawn up for 2011. Led by Sabathia, the Yankees had no other elite starters in 2010, and the departure of Andy Pettitte will not aid them in any way. However, Phil Hughes displayed the potential to be the elite starter for the Yankees in 2010.

    Hughes went 18-8 with a 4.19 Earned Run Average in 2010, however those stats do not reflect Hughes' potential. Before the All-Star break, Hughes was dominant, going 11-2 with a 3.65 earned run average. In that time, the Yankees went 56-32. Hughes is just 24, so his production in 2010 is that much more impressive.

    If Hughes takes the next step in his pitching, sustaining his production throughout the entire season, the Yankees will be playoff bound. However, if he regresses even slightly, the Yankees' pitching will haunt them, potentially cutting the playoff hopes. 

1. Josh Beckett, Boston Red Sox

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    NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 24:  Josh Beckett #19 of the Boston Red Sox pitches against the New York Yankees on September 24, 2010 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
    Andrew Burton/Getty Images

    There is no question that Josh Beckett's performance in 2011 will be a determining factor of whether or not the Red Sox will make a run at the World Series. The Red Sox have very few questions offensively, however their pitching is very unclear. If Beckett is able to return and pitch like he has in previous seasons, the Red Sox will be almost unstoppable. However, if Beckett struggles often, the Red Sox will be very vulnerable.

    In 2003, when Beckett won a World Series with Florida, he went 9-8 with a 3.04 earned run average. Furthermore, in 2007, when the Red Sox won the World Series, Beckett went 20-7 with a 3.27 earned run average. On the other hand, in 2010, when the Red Sox failed to reach the playoffs, Beckett went 6-6 with a 5.78 earned run average, failing to stay healthy.

    Clearly, Beckett has the potential to take this team far in the playoffs, however his 2010 injury may still be lingering. Because of how important Beckett is to the Red Sox, he is the most important player to follow during spring training in the American League East, and arguably all of baseball.