Mandatory Credit: David Manning-USA TODAY Sports
Baseball is about to start! Real baseball! Meaningful baseball! Every team has a chance. Every team is “in the hunt”.
This is the first installment of this season’s AL East Round Up. I’ve got pretty big shoes to fill to match Justin Jay’s previous contributions, but I’ll give it a go. Each week, I’ll provide a quick overview of what’s going on in the toughest division in not just baseball, but all of sports: the AL EAST. An argument can be made that any team from this division could win if they were in another division. Yes, even the Toronto Blue Jays. This division is stacked. Which is why this will be so much fun. And, I get to get my digs in at the Yankees and Red Sox, which is always good for my baseball induced stress. Let’s start with a look at the spring each team has had…
OFF SEASON: The Orioles added Delmon Young in a trade with Oakland for Jim Johnson. They nearly signed Grant Balfour, but that went nutty. Instead, they signed Korean Suk-min Yoon, (Jays fans close your eyes) Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz.
SPRING TRAINING: Alex Snyder over at BleacherReport.com gives us a rundown of the good and bad for the Orioles this spring. Of note is that the Orioles could be having their own issues at second after Brian Roberts joined The Dark Side. Jemile Weeks is having a brutal spring, while top prospect Jonathan Schoop is tearing it up. But, as Blue Jays fans we know that from a second baseman hitting doesn’t matter. We just need him to play good defense. Right, Alex Anthopoulos? *eye roll* *sigh* Moving on…Manny Machado, the other worldly third baseman will be starting the season on the DL. He’s set to return on April 6. Being that he’s only been able to light drills thus far, he may require some more “seasoning” to get in game shape for a full season. Although, it is conceivable that they give him a handful of games and then bring him up quicker.
OUTLOOK: With the new additions to the core from last season, Baltimore very well could be a force in this division. If they can all adopt Adam Jones‘ swagger, this very well could be the team to beat. However, even if they are in the thick of things at the trade deadline, it is hard to imagine Orioles management going even more “all in” to put them over that hump. They may surprise though.
Boston Red Sox:
OFF SEASON: The defending World Series Champs (God, it hurts to say that!) made very few “splashy” moves. I guess, when you’re on top, it is easy to chill a bit. Instead, they went crazy with minor league deals and some other transactions. Of note, they signed Mike McCoy (he can pitch, right?) to a minor league deal, A.J. Pierzynski, Edward Mujica, Chris Capuano, re-signed Mike Napoli (coulda been a Blue Jay), traded with the Colorado Rockies for Jonathan Herrera, and signed Grady Sizemore. Perhaps the biggest surprise was Ryan Dempster walking away from his $13m+ to take the year off.
SPRING TRAINING: Amidst the unnecessary drama of David Ortiz and his contract extension, there have been some on field performances. Specifically, Jon Lester is RED hot! That does not bode well for Blue Jays fans. Nor could it go well for the Red Sox being that they have been trying to work out an extension for Lester despite Ortiz hogging all the attention. Another, shining star for the Red Sox would have to be Grady Sizemore. It appears as though he is almost back to being the All Star he was with Cleveland. This is not good news for the young Jackie Bradley Jr. What is even more annoying is that this would be the second year in a row the Red Sox took a chance on someone with questionable health and it paying off. Damn them! With this kind of fortune, it would be my “dream job” too.
OUTLOOK: Coming off an unexpected (I don’t care what anyone says, they did not predict them winning it all) championship, the Red Sox will be playing with much more confidence. The expectations will be higher. Everyone is a year older (What? That seems to be valid when we’re talking about the Blue Jays). Can David Ortiz continue to defy the odds and keep dominating? I’ve been saying “No” for 2 years now. He’s been proving me wrong. Now that he’s signed, can he focus on the team? Can John Ferrell be the magical *another eye roll* force the Sox need? They should be right in the thick of things this season. Their starting rotation will carry them…that and their strategically placed horseshoe.
New York Yankees:
OFF SEASON: So, ummm…..did the Yankees do anything to improve on their enjoyably disappointing 2013? The Evil Empire lost their best hitter and arguably the best hitter in baseball, Robinson Cano. They’ve lost the greatest closer ever, Mariano Rivera (although the closer’s role is the most over rated job in baseball). Andy Pettitte also retired (finally). The stop gaps of Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay, Mark Reynolds, Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner all left. The most drawn out and dramatic loss was that of the embattled (that’s being nice) Alex Rodriguez. Although, this loss probably makes the yanks better. So, how did they make up for all of this? Well, they only spent nearly half a billion dollars. To wit: Brian McCann $85M, Jacoby Ellsbury $153M (I admit it is fun watching the Yanks poach the Red Sox), Kelly Johnson $3M, Carlos Beltran $45M, Matt Thornton $7M, Brian Roberts $2M and Masahiro Tanaka $155M + $20M posting fee. The question is: is that enough? Is it enough money? Is it smart money? If you have enough money, do you need smart money?
SPRING TRAINING: C.C. Sabathia has had some velocity decrease along with his weight. But, with a 1.59 ERA this spring with 16 Ks, he’s been named the Opening Day starter. He’s looked good. The decision to put Michael Pineda in the rotation may have been doubted (by who, I don’t know). But, after his spring performances, he’s been named to the fifth spot. He’s been stellar. Blue Jays fans would love to have such an option as their 5th starter, rather than…well, let’s not go there. The Yanks have a lot of catchers and Francisco Cervelli is lighting it up with the bat. This leaves Austin Romine and John Ryan Murphy on the outside. Murphy will get his shot in the near future, though. Tanaka is an interesting study. In 15 innings, he’s given up 12 hits, but struck out 16. If he figures out how to avoid North American bats, watch out! I was most interested in seeing how Derek Jeter would perform. This is his last year and it isn’t off to a good start. At age 40, he’s sporting a shiny .128 avg with 9Ks in 50 plate appearances. Despite this terrible showing, the Yankees will give the greatest Yankee ever LOTS of room. And he deserves it!
OUTLOOK: Offensively, the Evil Empire will compete with anyone. Assuming, they all stay healthy. After their starting lineup, they look awfully thin. With a bounce back season from Sabathia, a good rookie showing from Tanaka and Hiroki Kuroda repeating last year’s showing, the end of the season could be quite interesting. You have to assume they will be in the hunt all year and if they are, expect them to keep pursuing additions at the trade deadline.
Tampa Bay Rays:
OFF SEASON: Tampa Bay quietly went about addressing their needs under the radar. They can’t compete with Yankee money, but still manage to “do their thing”. It shows that winning attracts players. Smart moves lead to winning. It is a model the Blue Jays are trying to copy…sort of. Tampa Bay has added Wilson Betemit, they welcome back Grant Balfour after Baltimore made a mess of that, re-signed James Loney, traded with Arizona Diamondbacks for Heath Bell and the Cincinnati Reds for Ryan Hanigan (extended him for 3yrs) and added David DeJesus. The Rays have really covered their back (side) of the bullpen after the departure of Fernando Rodney and his 85 saves over the last two seasons. The rest of their moves have been to add depth. Where the Yankees add to their front line, the Rays seems to keep adding to all of their lines, refusing to rest with one (expensive) solution at any one position.
SPRING TRAINING: Last season when Wil Myers came up, I immediately fell in love with his poise at the plate. I am most excited to see how the 2013 AL Rookie of the Year fairs this season. Not that this award is an indicator of future success (see Eric Hinske). So far this spring, Myers has shown a rather pedestrian .277 avg in 47 AB. In his brief career, Myers has shown that Rays fans shouldn’t be too worried, though. Evan Longoria is off to a bit of a slow start, but his numbers will be there by the end of the season. Like the entire organization, Longoria quietly goes about his business. This spring is no different. For him, the key is to stay healthy. His bat is not the concern. There really hasn’t been much in the way of bad for the Rays this spring. Jeremy Hellickson has had surgery on his elbow in January and should be back by June. Having said that, Matt Moore was hit in the face by a line drive from Xander Boegarts, but doesn’t appear to be impacted for the long term. All in all, the Rays are putting together a successful spring.
OUTLOOK: While these games are meaningless, they do show that there aren’t many weaknesses for the Rays. A full 162 game schedule will show that their offense is thin. However, while John Ferrell really has no impact (in my opinion) on the Red Sox success, the Rays will need Joe Maddon to navigate them through this season. If healthy, Longoria will be in the discussion for a Gold Glove. In fact, he could even challenge for an MVP. Wil Myers will continue his progression, which is kind of scary. I just don’t think the Rays will have enough this year to compete for the AL East title. Of course, they’ve been questioned in the past and have proven doubters wrong. So, what do I know?
Toronto Blue Jays:
OFF SEASON: Well…..ummmm…..do I really need to? OK, fine. They added Dioner Navarro and let J.P. Arencibia go. There. Any questions? Good. Seriously, that’s about it. OK, here’s a list of other “moves”: they traded Brad Lincoln to the Phillies for Erik Kratz, they signed Radhames Liz (minor league deal), claimed Matt Tuiasosopo, signed Frank Viola Jr (minor league deal), Chris Getz (minor league deal), you get the idea…oh wait, they also signed Tomo Ohka! *ugh*
SPRING TRAINING: *even bigger ugh* While their record isn’t all that terrible, there is more to it. The offense has been good. Melky Cabrera is coming back from his tumor riddled 2013. In 62 plate appearances he’s batting a promising .431! Bautista is dropping bombs! Brett Lawrie is batting .333. In fact, the only possible worry is Colby Rasmus and his 16 Ks. Another possible concern to come out of spring training is Jose Reyes and his hamstring. His MRI revealed a mild strain. So, the Blue Jays will proceed with extreme caution, remembering what happens when Reyes is not in the lineup. The bigger story (and not in a good way) is the pitching staff’s ‘projectile dysfunction’. There was supposed to be a big battle for the two rotation spots. Thankfully, Drew Hutchison has come back from Tommy John surgery and is shining. That leaves one spot to be filled. If you had asked a few weeks ago, it would have been a list of names considered for that spot. However, each of those names has actually managed to perform their way OFF the list. Most recently, J.A. Happ and Esmil Rogers imploded. The Blue Jays are left in such a desperate situation, they are actually willing to risk Dustin McGowan‘s arm falling off and have named him the 5th starter! Don’t get me wrong, he’s had a great spring. But, if the other list of players hadn’t performed so dismally, we wouldn’t even be talking about McGowan.
OUTLOOK: Oh, boy. Depending on the day, I am up and down as to where the Blue Jays will finish this season. They are almost exactly the same team that was picked to win it all last season. If anything, they are healthier. By the looks of things, the offense will carry this team. If Toronto’s starters *cough* Brandon Morrow *cough* can stay healthy, the bullpen can close out a game like nobody’s business. The Blue Jays just need their 4 starters to give quality starts. That should save the bullpen to lighten the load for Dustin McGowan. I’m not so sure things are as bad as some fear. I’m just not convinced that things are as good as some may hope.
The AL East is such a competitive division. Each team has the talent to compete, yes even the Blue Jays. A number of different people could come up with different predictions and be justified. It should prove to be a fun season. Each week, I’ll provide you with an update on how the division is shaping up. So, in the words of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises: “Let the games begin!”