Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Predicting the AL East

Baseball's most feared division will remain so in 2012. Ironically, though, the newly added Wild Card—which seemed tailor-made to at last bring hope to the third-place finisher in this brutal bracket—will bypass the American League East this year. So who will be the unlucky third wheel at the big dance on the East Coast? Read on.

1. New York Yankees (102-60; 1st playoff seed)
Simply put, the Yankees have a chance to be the best at everything in 2012. They won this division on January 13, when, after a theretofore quiet offseason, they acquired Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda within the span of a few hours. Suddenly, their surprisingly effective patchwork rotation from 2011 (including afterthoughts such as Iván Nova and Freddy García) was excellent on paper, too.

That would be impressive enough, but what makes New York so scary is that it has extraordinary pitching depth to go along with that concentrated quality at the top. Phil Hughes (who has looked excellent this spring), García (underrated because of several seasons lost to injury, but he's never been worse than average), and Andy Pettitte (!) give the Yanks seven major-league-capable starters, two of whom will join dominant arms like Dave Robertson and Mariano Rivera in their bullpen.

The Yankee offense, meanwhile, has never been in question—I believe they're going on their 937th straight season of having one of the best lineups in the game. Rather than cite any tired stats from superstars I know you've heard of, I'll leave you with this thought: CC Sabathia (3.00) and Nova (3.74) won 19 and 16 games, respectively, with this offense. Kuroda (3.07) and Pineda (3.74) could reasonably expect the same. The last team with four 20-game winners was the 1971 Orioles. They won 101 on the year.

2. Tampa Bay Rays (94-68; 2nd Wild Card)
Last year, Tampa's offense left much to be desired, with one of baseball's worst team batting averages at .244—yet the Rays still scored an above-average number of runs. This franchise wins by not being flashy, and it showed in how few people picked them for the playoffs last year. I won't make the same mistake this year, as the closer I look at this lineup, the more I find to like in it. The return of Carlos Peña and the addition of Luke Scott supplement the power of Evan Longoria and BJ Upton; this team could actually hit some dingers. Desmond Jennings is a developing star with base-taking and base-running skills—something you don't see a lot anymore (look no further than Scott Podsednik). I even liked the signing of José Molina, who is worth so much more than his bat because of his incalculable benefits at catcher, perhaps the single most important position on the field. I would truthfully venture that, over a full season, he could be worth up to 3.0 WAR based on his defense and pitch-calling alone.

Then again, I don't have to look closely at the pitching to know I really like this team. At first, the lack of big names makes you think that the rotation is another non-flashy but fundamentally sound aspect of the Rays—sort of a Twins-esque assembly of solid innings-eaters from one through five. This would be an incorrect assessment. Both James Shields (2.82) and, of all people, Jeremy Hellickson (2.95) had better 2011s than CC Sabathia; Matt Moore and David Price should likewise have no trouble getting their ERAs under 3. This is nothing short of a dominant rotation that, with Wade Davis in the bullpen and Alex Cobb in the minors, is also seven deep.

The Rays have taught us never to underestimate them—so I won't. Count on this team—which is built for long-term competitiveness better than any in the division—to build itself a dynasty with perennial playoff appearances. This year, only its inability to stack up with the offense in the Bronx will keep Tampa from first place.

3. Boston Red Sox (88-74)
The Red Sox have mastered the offense part of Moneyball. Last year, they led the league in offense with an .810 OPS; in other words, their entire team batted as well, on average, as Chipper Jones or Brandon Phillips. They did so, too, without much production out of left field, right field, and other positions, which is why concerns about their lineup holes at shortstop and right field in 2012 are overblown. (Heck, they don't even need Carl Crawford to return to form, although you can count on his doing so.)

The problem with Boston is that the part of the team that truly doomed them in 2011—the pitching—remains afflicted with the same basic maladies. I'm honestly a little surprised that a team with only two sure-thing starters (Jon Lester and Josh Beckett) is still considered such a league power. Clay Buchholz should be back to full health (and full dominance), but that's not a given; besides, after him, the Red Sox literally have no additional major-league starters. They'll have to strike gold with talented-but-risky Daniel Bard or another roster surprise (Aaron Cook?) in order to avoid being continually embarrassed in pitching matchups with the Rays and Yankees.

Fundamentally, this is the same Red Sox team as last season's controversial iteration. An optimist would say that they were the best team in baseball for four months, and that would be true. But what stands out from the Red Sox' 2011 season was that, when they bled, they could not clot. During the months of April and September, the team played terrible baseball and was incapable of ceasing to do so. (This despite the fact that April and September are the two worst times to stink up the joint, and that the media/fan pressure was crushing to return to form and succeed.) Whether that's a function of a starting rotation not good enough to prevent prolonged skids or some deeper-seated flaw, it doesn't appear that the Fenway brass did anything to change it.

4. Toronto Blue Jays (79-83)
There's a lot of optimism out there about Toronto. I share it, but it's more long-term for me—I just don't see where the wins will come from in 2012. We've been down this road before, remember. Every few years, the Blue Jays appear poised to finally break into the top tier in the AL East, but they've never quite lived up to that promise. Forgive me if I consider the burden of proof on them at this point.

José Bautista has proven himself, for sure—jacking his game up to a .447 OBP and .608 slugging percentage in 2011. But I've already given up on two players who stubborn prognosticators seem to think can co-lead the Toronto offense: Colby Rasmus and Adam Lind. Both are overrated, miscast, and OBP-challenged. Brett Lawrie, Edwin Encarnación, and Kelly Johnson are a solid supporting cast for Bautista, but I'm not sure that they add up to anything better than the Rays' offense.

And they certainly can't touch the Rays' pitching—nor, frankly, even the Red Sox'. While Lester, Beckett, and Buchholz are all elite pitchers, Toronto has only one ace: Ricky Romero. Brandon Morrow, like the Blue Jays as a whole, is always considered a possible breakout star, but it never happens; it may be time to stop hoping. Then, like the Red Sox, the Blue Jays follow up with a number of question marks: three top prospects, in fact, who may or may not be ready for big-league action. (One, Kyle Drabek, has bad memories of the big leagues, while another, Joel Carreño, was expected to be a reliever until, well, this week.)

Like the Royals—with whom I see a lot of similarities, actually—the Blue Jays are one established starter away from making things really interesting. Unlike the Royals, however, they've been rumored to be aggressively seeking one out via trade. If they land a Gavin Floyd or a Joe Blanton around the trade deadline, all bets are off.

5. Baltimore Orioles (62-100)
I picked the Orioles for third place in the AL East last year due to their (what else?) depth of young starting pitching. It didn't pan out; in fact, it failed spectacularly. Still, it's as silly to think that Brian Matusz, Zach Britton, Chris Tillman, and Jake Arrieta are that bad as it was for me (and others) to think they were good enough to get the O's over .500 in the 2011 AL East. That quartet will improve this year (Matusz in particular has looked great in spring training) and be joined by some intriguing names from Baltimore's shrewd investment in the Far East: Wei-Yin Chen and Tsuyoshi Wada. But at least Boston has two sure things in its rotation and Toronto has one; the Orioles have zero. Despite the positive spin I've put on them, Matusz and co. can't be considered any more reliable than the minor leaguers the Sox and Jays are planning on throwing to the wall in hopes that they stick.

On offense, the O's are similarly adequate but shaky. They lack that true impact bat with a flawless swing and a penchant for collecting MVP votes—although they make up for it with fairly consistent quality from the top to the bottom of the order. Their best hitter may be the extremely strikeout-prone Mark Reynolds, or perhaps walk-allergic Adam Jones—both of whom have been mentioned in trade talks. And even with career years in 2011 from JJ Hardy and Matt Wieters—neither of whom is a sure thing to repeat—the Orioles offense was only so-so last year. That bodes poorly for the 2012 lineup, whose biggest addition is DH Wilson Betemit (who, let's be honest, will not remain a starter for long).

I wish I didn't have to put the Orioles down for last place, as they're hardly an atrocious team and have the potential to play some watchable ball this year. Yet, at the same time, Baltimore is the one squad in the AL East that doesn't have anything to recommend it. Among such brutally tough competition, that's enough for it to get beaten down upon for 100 losses.

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