With the season just about set to begin and most of the position battles settled, I’m ready to set forth and make some bold predictions, and others not so bold. I’ll post my MLB wide predictions (most of which are unlikely to come true but make for good stuff to talk about), and hopefully I’ll come up with a few gems that will make some sense (as my 2010 prediction of the Jays finishing above .500 and Texas winning the West did last season).
Here are my A.L. East predictions, going from last to first, just to make things more interesting and to build up to the surprise team that I expect will win the A.L. East.
#5 – The Baltimore Orioles – Record: 78 – 84
The Orioles proved at the end of 2010 that having a new manager can make a huge difference when they went on a long winning binge that had them finish August with a .607 winning percentage, September with .537, and October with 3 wins of 4 games played. Since then, they’ve also made numerous additions and subtractions to their lineup and pen in particular, as well as a few additions that could help out some in the rotation. As great as all of those changes are, I still can’t place them above .500 for 1 simple reason: their pitching is still too young and lacks depth of talent.
When Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman, and Zach Britton are all seasoned and raring to go, the AL East will be a different place. Until then, however, the Orioles and their fans can expect some impressive starts, and some horrifying starts. It’s the lack of consistency that will drive them crazy. When you have Jeremy Guthrie ranked as your #1 pitcher in a division like the AL East, you know you’re not headed for a .500 season. Even the Yankees are wondering if they can remain in the Wild Card this season and they have C.C. Sabathia and Phil Hughes – both much better than Guthrie - in their rotati0n.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the Orioles will drive in more runs, a lot more runs, in 2011 than they did last season. The addition of Vladimir Guerrero should not be understated, as he sets a presence in their lineup that had been lacking in previous years. The power numbers brought in by Vladdy, Derek Lee, Mark Reynolds, and new SS J.J. Hardy will make them a more potent offence that can break out at any point in time. However, it’s Brian Roberts that sets the tone for the entire offensive force, and that’s where things begin to fall apart for the Orioles. Roberts and newcomer Derek Lee are both likely to have injury issues that will hold them back from performing at 100%. Since their names carry so much weight, they’re unlikely to sit out if they say they’re good to go. So, there are still issues to be resolved in that lineup.
The pen, as much as it has been “redone”, is still the weakest in the AL East and will be a source of agony for this team in 2011. Kevin Gregg can get the job done at the back fo the pen, but he’s far from a sure thing. Jeremy Accardo joins an injury riddled or prone pen that has Koji Uehara and Mike Gonzalez currently in place to set up Gregg.
Wildcards: The Orioles have a few pieces that could change my prediction significantly in Matt Wieters, Adam Jones and Nick Markakis. All are capable of doing much better than they did in 2010 and could break out this season. If they do, it could add another 5 wins or so to my prediction above, with the caveat that the pitching still has to step up for that to happen. The other wild card is Brian Matusz. He got some experience last season and showed glimpses of what he is capable of. If he can pitch consistently all season long, he could be a 15 game winner and become their ace as they head into 2012. Finally, Jake Fox has shown tremendous power this spring that could really help the Orioles win a few more games.
Final Take: Unlike the Red Sox, Yankees, and now even the Blue Jays, the Orioles are unlikely to make a big splash acquisition this season to help push them to another level if they succeed early on in the season. Their pen needs a ton of work, and unlike all other teams in the AL East, there is little on the way from the minors to help the big club through injuries aside from Zach Britton. With so little depth, any and all injuries will set them back big time and that’s why I still have them below .500 in 2011. Look for them to be much better in 2012 if things work out for them as planned.
#4 – The Tampa Bay Rays: 88 – 74
Everyone seems to believe that Jeremy Hellickson, Manny Ramirez, and Johnny Damon will be good enough additions to keep the Rays within the top of the AL East. I completely disagree. Not only did the Rays deal their #2 starter in Matt Garza, but they also lost their lineup ignition switch in Carl Crawford, their power guy in Carlos Pena, Jason Bartlett, and Dioner Navarro.
Let’s set the record straight about their rotation: David Price is a future Cy Young candidate and will lead the pack as a dominant #1 starter for them, and the Jeremy Hellickson – Wade Davis – Jeff Niemann trio behind him pretty well guarantees that they’ll finish above .500. Their worst starter, by far, is James Shields, and although he is currently listed as their #2 starter, he’s really their 5th in my mind. In my opinion, their rotation is much better than the Red Sox and lead the A.L. East in depth since they have a few guys in the minors (Christopher Archer, Alex Cobb, and Matthew Moore) that could step up to help them out if they wind up in a bind due to injury.
Even with such a strong rotation, however, I still see them with a worst record for a few good reasons. First, they have the worst LF in the AL East in Johnny Damon, and that alone could have all teams going 1st to 3rd or 2nd to home every time a single goes in his direction. That could really hurt the defensive capabilities of the Rays and could prolong innings and lead to a few big losses. Second, Manny Ramirez is happy right now. Will he be for the entire season? I can’t bank on it. So, instead, I’ll bank on history and say that he’ll be a major distraction at some point that will pull this team down.But, the biggest reason I see this team taking a step backwards lies in the bullpen.
Not only does the Orioles bullpen lack leadership and consistency, but it will be led by none other than Kyle Farnsworth. Let me say that again: it will be led by Kyle Farnsworth…..’nough said. They have no closer and lost their man in Rafael Soriano this off season and have J.P. Howell dealing with injuries. Sure, Joel Peralta and Jake McGee are going to be decent back there, but without a strong or even consistent pen, I have to knock them for at least 5-7 wins in 2011 from their 2010 record. Add in the Johnny Damon presence in LF, the Man Ram presence on the bench, and the lack of Carl Crawford type leadership and ignition in the lineup, and I’ve docked them by 8 wins overall. I think that’s more than fair considering the issues they could face in 2011. I actually believe it could be as bad as 83-85 wins, but they’re too talented in the rotation for me to go there right now.
Wildcards: Matthew Joyce has a real shot at changing things in the lineup if he can play well enough to get the bulk of the playing time in RF. That would allow for Ben Zobrist to play mostly 1B and would make their lineup more potent overall. Sean Rodriguez also has a chance to play full time for the first time and could provide a very nice boost to their offence. Sam Fuld has really opened up some eyes this spring and he seems like the kind of OF that can do a little bit of everything. As a small piece of the Garza trade, he seems like he could be a real gem in the deal. Finally, if he steps up in the pen and takes the closer’s role as many predict, Jake McGee could help the Rays remain at the top of the AL East. But, that’s a giant IF.
Final Take: As with the Orioles, the Rays will have real serious pen issues and may take a hit in LF defence with Damon manning the position. They’re now older than they were in 2010, have the possibility of “cohesiveness” issues – even with the ever friendly Joe Maddon at the helm. But, their rotation, Evan Longoria‘s leadership and capabilties, as well as their overall talent should keep them well above .500. The MAJOR reason I have them below the Jays, Yankees, and Red Sox, however, has everything to do with their budget – or lack there of. For the first time in a long time, the Rays are completely handcuffed money wise and won’t be able to make that necessary move midway through the season if it is required. More likely would be a trade of what they have in-house to unload some salary, with the leading candidate being Johnny Damon and his $5.25 million and/or B.J. Upton and his soon to be above $5 million salary ($4.825 million in 2011 and arbitration eligible for the 3rd time and already has Desmond Jennings ready to take over from him in CF).
#3 – The Toronto Blue Jays: 89 – 73
I’ll preface my Jays prediction by saying that it was based on having a healthy Brandon Morrow all season long. If he’s not healthy and Jo-Jo Reyes takes over from him in the rotation, I would predict a loss of 6 wins in 2011, so the record would be set back to 83-79.
“In Alex Anthopoulos we trust”, that’s the new motto of Jays fans this season and the fans are showing their approval by buying enough tickets to ensure a sellout of the home opener. The Jays do have some real question marks throughout their roster, but as their new GM has shown in 2010, he’s able to spot the deficiencies and address them accordingly. In 2010, when the Jays needed a lead off guy, he acquired Fred Lewis from the Giants for cash only, plugging a hole that had been plaguing the squad from spring training onwards. Not only can he see what the issues are, but with the Vernon Wells contract off the books and the willingness of Rogers to go as high as $150 million with their budget, Alex Anthopoulos has a wealth of riches to work with if he sees that the Jays are in contention or spots the talent he is looking from another squad that’s looking to unload some salary.
Not only do the Jays have the budget room to add to what they already have in-house, but they arguably have more “MLB Ready” talent to help them out than any other team in the A.L.East (tied with the Yankees). Brett Lawrie, Eric Thames, Zach Stewart, Brad Mills, Adeiny Hechavarria, Travis d’Arnaud, Brian Jeroloman, Adam Loewen, Darin Mastroianni, and others are all ready to help out if the Jays need help.
Now, some will point to the loss of Shaun Marcum as a major reason the Jays could take a step back, but I say that’s very unlikely. Kyle Drabek is ready for The Show and will prove to be just as effective as Marcum was in terms of getting the Jays wins. His stats may not be the same, but I fully expect him to manage 13-15 wins to match the 13 wins Marcum provided the Jays in 2010. I, unlikely many others, am a huge Jesse Litsch fan after seeing him with 13 wins in the A.L. East as a 23 year old while maintaining a 3.58 ERA. Now healthier than ever with an excellent fitness program in place, I expect that he – as the 5th starter in the rotation – could win the Jays 13-15 games in 2011. How many teams in the AL East can say the same right now?
Brett Cecil, meanwhile, is an A.L. East killing machine and the most under rated pitcher in the division. He won 11 games in 15 starts against A.L. East opponents in 2010 for a .733 winning percentage in the East. That’s extremely impressive and makes him tied with John Lackey from the Sox as the best #3 starters in the AL East. Add in a #2 starter, Brandon Morrow, that could take over from Ricky Romero as the ace of the staff and could see both win 17-18 games, and you’ve got a great 1-2 punch. So long as they get great run support, the pitching should be a highlight of the 2011 season for the Jays.Brett Cecil
Speaking of the hitting, full playing time for Edwin Encarnacion, a full season of healthy play from Travis Snider – my breakout candidate of 2011 – and a spark plug at the top of the lineup in Rajai Davisare all reasons I’m optomistic for the Jays to score more runs in 2011 than they did in 2010. Add in what should be better seasons from Adam Lind and Aaron Hill, and you’ve got a really potent offensive force in Toronto, even if Jose Bautistadoesn’t repeat his 54 HR production. Speaking of which, even if he “only” hits 35 HRs or so, that still puts him ahead of what Alex Rodriguez and Evan Longoria did in 2011. So, the Jays could have the most powerful bat in the A.L. East and now have 30-40 HR potential in Encarnacion if he gets full playing time. How can people say that the Jays will lose some power in 2011? I say that a full season of Travis Snider and J. P. Arencibia could actually put the Jays ahead of where they were in 2010 in terms of power.
The Wildcards: What if Bautista does repeat or better is 2010 performance? Evey0ne looks at the fact that he probably won’t, but nobody is looking at the fact that he might. That could make a huge difference for the Jays in 2011. I, for one, expect him to break 40 HRs once again, helped out by better performances ahead of him in the lineup from Yunel Escobar‘s excellent OBP (who I also see hitting 15 HRs or so), and Davis which will drive opposing pitchers crazy on the bases. Having said that, the biggest wildcard for the Jays in 2011 is Brett Lawrie, the Canadian kid who come step up in June and make the Jays one of the most potent offensive teams in the A.L .East. His addition will bring gritty play and attitude, and it could be just the spice that the doctor ordered to givce the Jays that “can do” attitude from that point forward. Finally, the Jays need the entire pen to be as effective as is expected from such a veteran bunch. If they are, there’s no doubt in my mind that they’ll eek out many wins that may otherwise have been lost.
Final Take:That, in my books, is why the Jays will be slightly better in 2011 than they were in 2010. The loss of Marcum will be replaced by competitiveness and the energy and enthusiasm of both Brett Lawrie and Kyle Drabek, and the cohesive group that the Jays have in place (all similar in age) will result in a very fun season to watch. The rotation is filled with depth of pitchers that could all get double digit wins, and the pen is nicely filled with veterans that ALL have at least some closing experience. The money the Jays have to work with, having the best GM in all of baseball, taking in the pitching coach of a division rival who could help the Jays beat the Red Sox more often, and the depth in the minors that they have are simply cherries on the top of the sundae for the Jays, and are exactly the reasons I expect them to exceed expectations of the majority of analysts in the baseball community.
#2 – The Boston Red Sox: 97 – 65
Everyone’s sexy pick to win the AL East is the Boston Red Sox and I disagree with that assessment. Believe me, it pains me to place the Red Sox below the Evil Empire, but I have to at this point and the reason, believe it or not, is pitching. Not only did the Red Sox lose their pitching coach when John Farrell signed with the Jays, but they also allowed a division rival to gain all of the knowledge you could ever want about your team’s pitchers. All Jays hitters will now be able to exploit Red Sox pitchers because they have the guy in house who can provide the best scouting report you could ever want. Meanwhile, he also provides Jays pitchers with great plans of attack to get Red Sox hitters out. So, I expect that the Red Sox will have a very tough time beating the Jays this season.
Then we take a look at their rotation. Beyond Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, their rotation is full of questions, and there’s very little in the minors to help them out if and when injuries occur. John Lackey, Josh Beckett (6 wins and a 5.78 ERA in 2010), and especially Daisuke Matsuzaka (only 9 wins and a 4.69 ERA in 2010), all carry questions and are no guarantees to be there performing at a high level all season long. If not them, then who? I do have some faith in Lackey’s ability to do well in 2011 and get the Red Sox 14-16 wins, but Beckett’s loss of velocity has him mystified at how to pitch effectively without the heater being dominant and the Sox can’t expect much from him as a result. Thankfully for the Red Sox, they have Tim Wakefield in the mix to take over when required, and he’s a big reason I still have the Red Sox winning the wild card, but after him, the depth runs as dry as the Arizona desert. Their only real impact pitcher in the minors was traded to the Padres in the Adrian Gonzalez deal.
The lineup is what’s going to earn the Red Sox the wild card. Adding Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford will undoubtedly add a ton of talent to their already talent-filled lineup, and there won’t be much of a break at any point in their lineup for opposing pitchers to take a breath. However, we do have to caution that their lineup lost Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez, two of the bats that carried their team in 2010. I don’t want to offend Jarrod Saltalamacchia, but his numbers won’t come close to matching V-Mart’s. However, I do expect Gonzo’s numbers to be much better than Adrian Beltre‘s overall (power numbers in particular), so the “exchange” was a winner overall for the Red Sox. Still, the Marco Scutaro and Salty combination at the bottom of the lineup does lack a little bit of oomph.
The question marks for the Red Sox will be health in the lineup. If Dustin Pedroia (left foot) and Kevin Youkilis (plantar fasciitis) are healthy, and Gonzo’s shoulder issues are gone when the season begins, this score a massive amount of runs. However, if the Kevin and Dustin continue to have issues with their feet and Gonzo’s shoulder acts up, this team could have a hard time scoring enough runs to overcome some of their deficient pitching.
And, this is where the Red Sox are extremely lucky. They have the pen in place to make sure that every single opportunity they get to win a game will be taken advantage of. From a determined to prove others wrong Jonathan Papelbon, to Daniel Bard and newcomers Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler, the Red Sox are drunk with pen talent. There is some talk of them dealing Jonathan Papelbon, but I don’t see it happening unless they’re blown away by an offer.
Wildcards:The Red Sox may not have much in the way of pitching talent in the minors, but they do have Jose Iglesias who could be one of the best defensive SS of the next era in baseball. Idon’t see why the Red Sox would hang onto Marco Scutaro very long when they could help their pitchers out by having Iglesias play behind them, so expect a June at the latest call up of the Cuban prospect. How he’ll do offensively is anyone’s guess, but he’ll definitely be a major defensive asset. The other wild card is Salty. If he can come out mashing as everyone knows he can, then there’s no stopping this lineup as it is designed right now. But, if he flops as he surely could, it goes the other way and places a big hole in the bottom of the lineup since there isn’t another catcher set to take his spot and there’s no way Jason Varitek can catch every single day.
Final Take:The Red Sox may have some room to spend if they need to make a move or two at some point in the season, but with the Adrian Gonzalez contract set to go through early on in the season, they don’t have as much room to spend as they may have had in previous years. Add to that the fact that they’ve already depleted much of their minors system that takes them out of contention to trade for big talent pitching mid-season, and you’ve got a fairly tight situation in Boston this season in terms of reacting to needs – particularly within the rotation. They do, however, have one of the best managers in MLB in Terry Francona and with such a strong lineup and pen, there’s no doubt that they’ll be a front-runner in 2011. Still, with so many new faces to bring together, some injury concerns, and a weaker than expected rotation, I place them slightly behind the Yankees in the A.L. East. Like it or not, that’s where I have them.
#1 – The New York Yankees: 99 – 63
Most people who are not Yankees fans love to pick on the empire, and for good reason. They spend so much money on their team that it dwarfs the investment of other squads. So, many people like to pick apart the team and take shots at any weakness they see. The latest one has age being pointed to as a major deficiency. I say that’s hogwash. Derek Jeter is still a top 5 SS in MLB, Alex Rodriguez looks to be in top form this spring and will surely rebound from a 2010 season that had his hip acting up for the majority of the season, and Mark Teixeira is still well within the prime of his career. Brett Gardner is a lightning rod within the lineup, Nick Swisher adds grit and loosens up the club house, and new addition Eric Chavez now provides the Yankees with one of the best options off the bench in the A.L. East when healthy. Oh, and I forgot someone…..oh yeah, Mr. Robinson Cano, the player that i peg as challenging Evan Longoria the most for MVP honors this season.
The Yankees do have a few weak points, but they’re all points that can easily be fixed. For example, Jorge Posada and Russell Martin make for very questionable DH and catcher combination, but Francisco Cervelli and Jesus Montero provide for credible options that could help both of those areas at some point in 2011, as could Austin Romine once he gets more experience in AA under his belt. Another deficiency has been the back end of the rotation, something that was addressed partially by the additions of veterans Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon. Ivan Nova is still a fine option at #4, but if any of those pitchers fall through or get injured, the Yankees have a much more impressive group than the Red Sox do to take over the reigns at the back end of the rotation. Manny Banuelos (AA), David Phelps (AAA), Dellin Betances (AA), and Andrew Brackman (AA) could all come into play at some point in 2011 and help the Yankees take that next step forward.
The rotation is therefore stronger than it appears on the surface and the Garcia-Colon additions provide stability that they’ll definitely require to get ahead of the Red Sox. But, what they mostly do is allow for the young guys just mentioned to get some innings in and confidence built up to help the Yankees compete more effectively later on in the season. Add to that the fact that some pieces could become very nice trade pieces to acquire the likes of Fausto Carmona or other “available” pitchers, and you’ve got a lot more ammunition to use in NY than you do in BOS. Simply put, the Red Sox have already made their moves, while the Yankees have made some but have a lot more ammunition left in the tank to take aim at newly available options. In the injury filled pitching world that baseball sees itself in nowadays, that makes me much more comfortable with saying that the Yankees will come out on top between the two AL East mammoths.
Wildcards: There’s no doubt that when he’s on, A.J. Burnett is one of the best pitchers in the game. However, that’s usually only the case 2 out of every 3 starts, so you never know what you’re going to get from him. If he can get the Yankees 14-16 wins in 2011, I think he’ll be a major piece to their chances to win the East. Jesus Montero had a weak spring training, but a strong showing offensively in AAA and an openining in NY at DH could allow for him to make his mark come June. With his power and bat added to an already potent lineup, the Yankees would be extremely hard to stop. Finally, the bullpen, if healthy (a huge IF), could push them to the World Series. Adding Rafael Soriano to setup for Mariano Rivera basically ensured that if a team isn’t ahead come the 8th inning, it’s almost guaranteed to lose. Mark Prior could also become a very important piece back there and has looked great thus far in his new role, so the Yankees may have the strongest pen they’ve had in a very long time. That’s nothing but trouble for all opposing teams.
Final Take: Not only do I believe that the Yankees will make 1 or 2 major moves this season to grab some high end talent from other teams, but I truly believe that they have as much MLB talent ready to join their already impressive lineup and rotation as the Jays do. C.C. Sabathia can opt out of his contract and make a ton more money if he does well this season, so he’s set to have a tremendous season after losing some weight to help him out some this off season. Phil Hughesis a strong #2, and there are 7-8 reasonable options for the 3-5 spots even before we take trades into consideration. Add in one of the strongest lineups in MLB and an eight/ninth inning punch in the pen that is lights out, and you’ve got an extremely dominant team on your hands. While everyone is trumpeting the Red Sox and their additions this off season, my eyes drift back to the place I can’t stand the most and say wow, I can’t believe they have that much top-end talent ready to join and already elite squad. With the system ranked 5th in MLB by Baseball America this year, the Yankees should be well on their way to yet another AL East crown if my prediction is correct, as much as it pains me to admit it as a Jays fan.
That’s my take on the A.L. East and my predicitons for the 2011 season. It should be a very exciting year for all fans for the teams in the East, regardless of rankings, as most are expected to be around .500 or better. If that’s not enough ammunition to make rankings a League wide phenomenon (AL and NL only), I don’t know what is. There’s little doubt in my mind that the Wild Card team will once again come from the East.
Topics: Adrian Gonzalez, AJ Burnett, Alex Rodriguez, Daniel Bard, Derek Jeter, Dustin Pedroia, Evan Longoria, Fausto Carmona, Jesus Montero, Jorge Posada, Jose Bautista, Jose Iglesias, Kevin Youkilis, Marco Scutaro, Robinson Cano, Russell Martin