Now that the WBC is over, we are under two weeks until opening day. It's time to preview each team and what we can expect in 2009. I will start with the best division in all of sports, the AL East.
Projected order of finish
1. Boston Red Sox- That was very painful to type, since I'm a Yanks fan, but I have to consider the Sox the overall best team in the game on paper. The lineup is solid all the way around. Young stars such as Jason Bay, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Kevin Youkalis mixed in with a veteran power bats David Ortiz and J.D. Drew, the Sox will not have a problem scoring runs. Add in an emerging star in Jed Lorie and a healthy Mike Lowell and the lineup is solid. The only concern with the Red Sox is health. The do have aging vets in Ortiz, Drew, Lowell and Varitek and not much depth if they get banged up.
When it comes to pitching, that is the Red Sox real strength. A top of the rotation consisting Dice-K, Josh Beckett, John Lester is as good as it gets. Lester may be the best of the 3. The bullpen is the real strength of this team. The back end is solid with Jonathen Papplebon. In front of him is a surplus of solid arms including: Justin Masterson, Hideki Okijima, Takashi Saito and once he gets healthy John Smoltz. The Sox look to be the first team since the late 90's Yankees to really be able to shorten the game effectively. All the starters need to do is give them 6 innings and the game could be over.
Down on the farm, the Sox have a surplus of great young arms that Theo Epstein has refused to deal. The best being Michael Bowden. Expect him to get the call this year and help the Red Sox already solid staff win this division.
2. Tampa Rays- No surprising anyone this season, but the Rays won't have to. This was supposed to be the year that they started to compete, but they arrived a year early. The rays won't win the division, but they will return to the post-season, holding off the Yankees to win the wild card. Offensively, they have speed and power and will score some runs, even though that's not really the blueprint of this team winning games. It's defense and pitching.
The Rays have added a couple nice pieces to last years AL Pennant winning team. Right hand power in Pat Burrell who will DH and OF Matt Joyce who is another nice young player who can hit for average and power. Add that to the great young core with Crawford, Upton, Longoria and Pena and the Rays won't be a one hit wonder. This team should be around for a while.
On the hill, this team has a surplus of young arms. the rotation featuring: Kazmir, Shields, Garza, Sonnanstine and possibly phenom David Price. All 5 will continue to get even better and expect Garza to take the largest step forward this season. The only weakness may be at the back end of the bullpen. They have good, solid arms in the pen but may be able to make a pitch for a back end kind of guy around the trading deadline. I don't think Troy Percival will hold up health-wise for a whole season, as has been the trend.
Tampa still has the best farm systems in the majors. So expect some of the young guys to keep coming up and producing for the Rays.
3. New York Yankees- After missing the playoffs last season, the Yanks went on another huge off-season spending spree, adding Mark Texiera, C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. They will be in it til the very end, but when it is all said and done, the Yanks will fall a game short of the Rays for the Wild Card. They never get off to good starts in April, and having to play without A-Rod will ultimately cost them.
Offensively, the plan was to have A-Rod hitting in front of Texiera, but now Tex will have to shoulder a huge portion of the production, which has never been his strong suit. There are other problems the Yanks face offensively. At second base, which Robinson Cano will they have? The one who looks like a future batting champ or last years version? Secondly, Xavier Nady had his best season as a pro last year. Can he match or increase the production, since he will bat clean up until A-Rod returns. Who will be the center fielder, Gardner or Cabrerra? Can Posada and Damon stay healthy and produce? As you can see, there are way too many questions for a team with a 200 million dollar payroll.
One place the yanks don't have questions is the starting rotation. The additions of Sabathia and Burnett, the re-signing of Pettite added to holdovers Wang and Chamberlain and you have the best starting rotation in the game. The Yanks had a need and they filled it big time. The big question is... Who is going to get the ball to Mariano Rivera? That to me separates the Red Sox and Rays from the Yankees. The bullpen is very weak and it could cost the starters to get overworked by August.
The notion has always been that the Yankees never have a farm system, but that is simply not the case. They usually just deal them instead of bringing them up. They have spent so much money that great prospects such as Austin Jackson is buried. Despite the stellar look of the rotation, the guy with possibly the best stuff, Phil Hughes, is also buried at AAA. Don't look from any help from the Yanks farm team this season, quite frankly because there is no where to play them. If anything, expect the Yanks to try and fill a hole at the trading deadline again, by taking on a big contract for a bit of youth.
4. Baltimore Orioles- After the top 3, the final 2 teams in the division have a huge hill to climb, but if Tampa can do it, it is possible. I got the O's 4th, because the do have a ton of young talent and we should get to see some this year.
The O's committed to the future by signing Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis to long term deals. They still have Aubrey Huff and Melvin Mora who both put up solid numbers every season. They added Ryan Freel and Felix Pie via trade to add some depth and Adam Jones in his second year in the bigs should be better. Expect Matt Wieters to be up by May and win the Rookie of the Year.
The staff is a train wreck after Jeremy Guthrie for the time being. The O's have a ton of good arms progressing their way to the big club. Expect two or three to get the call this season. The O's will close games with George Sherril and Chris Ray, but there just isn't much behind that.
5. Toronto Blue Jays- The Blue Jays tried to take a run at the division the last couple of seasons, but they just didn't have the resources to compete. I pick them last this season, because I feel they will deal the work horse Roy Halladay this season, leaving them with some unproven arms in the rotation.
Offensively they still have some talent. Vets Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay and Scott Rolen could all have decent seasons. Toronto still has some youth with Alexis Rios and expect Travis Snyder to come along and make an impact. After that though, there isn't much.
The staff after Halladay has some good arms, just not top end guys. One who could make the jump is Jessie Litsch. His stuff is good, but every Blue Jay pitcher spends significant time on the DL. These guys must stay healthy. The Blue Jays rotation is that bad at the moment, that Brian Bullington has a chance to make the opening day roster.
That's how the AL East should shape up. Tomorrow, we will take a look at the AL Central.