Monday, March 19, 2012

The AL East in General

Friend of the blog Bryan O'Connor, of the Replacement Level Baseball Blog, asked me to participate in a collective AL East preview written by members of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance's General Chapter who happen to have allegiances to a particular team in the division.

A resident of Portland, Maine, Bryan identifies as a Red Sox fan. Added to the mix were Rays loyalist Jonathan Mitchell of MLB Dirt and Orioles sufferer Theo Gerome of Hot Corner Harbor. Of course, yours truly was brought in because of my status as a Yankees fan.

Failing to identify a Blue Jays blogger who fit that exact description, Tao of Stieb's The Org Guy capably rounded out the team.

Bryan asked each of us to answer three general questions about expectations for our respective teams, and our combined answers provide a pretty interesting outlook for the AL East in 2012.

What is your team’s ceiling? What has to go right for your team to win the AL East?

Left Field on the Yankees:

After winning the division by six games last year, and having had a better offseason than their chief competitors, the Yankees should win the AL East in 2012. But, the Red Sox were practically a lock to win it in 2011, and we all know how that turned out. So, basically all the Yanks need to do is follow Bobby Valentine’s lead and ban chicken and beer from their clubhouse.

I know, I know. The Sox new skipper didn’t ban chicken, just beer, but I don’t think they should take any chances.

Seriously, though, what really needs to happen is their key acquisitions need to live up to expectations, which given the Yankees’ history with bringing in starting pitchers is certainly no lock. A lot of folks have been quick to point out Michael Pineda’s second half of 2011 was less-than-stellar, and there’s been a quite a bit of talk about whether he needs to master a third pitch to be the guy the Yankees need to complement CC Sabathia at the top of the rotation.

There’s also been no shortage of suggestions that New York’s other key pitching acquisition, Hiroki Kuroda, is a prime candidate for a failed NL-to-AL transition, and the New York Post has already gone so far as to compare him to Kei Igawa, for one obvious–but completely misguided–reason.

Beyond the starting rotation, though, there’s a realistic expectation of improvement at several positions (1B, LF, 3B, DH), while others will be hard-pressed to repeat 2011 performances, most notably Curtis Granderson. While there’s no guarantee the aging Alex Rodriguez will have a bounce-back season, there seems to be more room for Yankees starting position players to improve than regress. Even if the net is break-even, there’s little to worry about when it comes to a team that last year was second in the AL in runs scored and OBP, third in OPS, and fourth in OPS+.

This team has the potential to win 100 games if the stars align properly for them. But, I’d say something in the ballpark of 95 is a more realistic expectation.

Jonathan Mitchell on the Rays:

The Tampa Bay Rays have the ceiling of a World Series champ. From their pitching rotation, depth, upgrades on offense, and league-best defense, it’s not so much what has to go right for them to win the East but what has to go wrong for them to not win the AL East. Simply staying healthy should give the Rays the best chance at winning the East.

Bryan O’Connor on the Red Sox:

Given all the talent on the roster, it’s hard to see any ceiling for the Sox in ’12. If everything goes right, this team could win 105 or 106 games, as they were on pace to do last year if not for the slow start and the September collapse.

Of course, there are a lot of variables at play. Josh Beckett has to pitch like it’s an odd year (check out his numbers over the past decade). Clay Buchholz’s back has to hold up for 200+ innings. Daniel Bard has to make a successful transition to the rotation. And the fillers (who may include such dregs as Carlos Silva) can’t be as dreadful as the replacement pitchers who were asked to steer the leaky ship last September.

Offensively, I have fewer concerns, but the Sox won’t win 100 games without a healthy Kevin Youkilis (or a fully-developed Will Middlebrooks in his stead) and a pre-2011 Carl Crawford slapping doubles, stealing bases, and covering all of Fenway’s small left field and then some. Some regression is expected from Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, and especially Jacoby Ellsbury, but given the levels at which they played in 2011, they’ll all still be among the best players in the league even if they do slip some.

The Org Guy on the Blue Jays
"Ceiling" is a funny word to apply to a team, especially during Spring Training and the early season, when we all cling to the mythology about every team having a shot at the division and the World Series and other untold glories. Reality eventually gets in the way for teams like the Blue Jays, who play in what is obviously the toughest division in baseball and probably the toughest division in professional sports.

There’s no doubt the Jays have improved, although there seems to be a tendency to discount how much they’ve improved after a quiet offseason. They didn’t add Prince Fielder (like a lot of fans wanted), or Yu Darvish (like a lot of fans were led to believe they would). They picked up what should be some helpful bullpen pieces in Francisco Cordero, Darren Oliver and Sergio Santos, and reacquired Jason Frasor to stabilize the relief corps as well. They said goodbye to Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch and Shawn Camp. On the offensive side, they picked up just some marginal pieces in Ben Francisco (thereby maintaining their Francisco quotient as mandated by Canadian law) and Jeff "Worst Hitter in Baseball—Hahaha—I Can’t Believe Someone Gave Him a Job" Mathis as backups.

So yeah, nothing earth-shattering was added between October and March. But don’t forget that the 2011 Blue Jays gave regular playing time to the likes of Corey Patterson, Juan Rivera, and Jayson Nix – useful players in certain situations, but not the kind that are going to help you cut the mustard against the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox. Those guys are gone, and the 2012 edition will feature full seasons of Brett Lawrie, Kelly Johnson, Colby Rasmus and one of Eric Thames or Travis Snider. Every one of them is (or should be) an upgrade over what was in place last year.

Still, a lot has to go right for the Blue Jays to win the Al East. Jose Bautista, arguably the best hitter in baseball, needs to have another season like 2010 and 2011. Lawrie, Rasmus and Johnson will need to perform better than the various occupants of their positions for most of 2011. I don’t think that will be all that difficult. Where the rubber meets the road for the Jays is in the starting rotation. Ricky Romero looks more like the real deal with every passing season, and expectations are high for Brandon Morrow to finally see his results match his excellent peripherals. After those two, though, it’s a lot of hope. Henderson Alvarez impressed during his ten games last season, but he really only has two pitches. Brett Cecil has arrived to camp in the much-ballyhooed "best shape of his life" but questions about his fastball velocity remain troublesome, and he spent much of last season in AAA-ball. Dustin McGowan could be an amazing and inspirational comeback story; or he could pitch 40 innings and never be heard from again. Kyle Drabek could begin putting it together, finding the strike zone and showing the world why he was the prized prospect in the Roy Halladay trade, but he’s just as likely to start the season in the minors.

Rumours (with a "u"!) abound about Alex Anthopoulos seeking out another arm to add to the mix before the season. I wouldn’t discount the possibility of that happening; as mentioned above, Anthopoulos has shown a talent for acquiring pieces during the course of the season, including at the trade deadline. In fact, if this team finds itself legitimately in the hunt for a playoff spot, it has the depth in the minor league system (with a near-consensus rank of second in all of baseball) to move prospects for additional talent this year. That’s the sort of deal that could really raise the ceiling for the team.

Theo Gerome on the Orioles:
I guess theoretically, their ceiling could be winning the division. It might require strategically placed meteors to the Bronx, Boston, and St. Petersburg, though. Realistically, the Orioles ceiling is probably just a winning record, something like 86 wins at the very best. And even then, it would take a lot to get that far. Brian Matusz is going to have to regain his fastball and improve off of his horrendous 10.69 ERA from last year. Matusz, Chris Tillman, and and Jake Arrieta are going to have to show the skills that they showed in the minor leagues. Zach Britton will have to improve on his strong rookie season (2.5 fWAR as a 23 year old). Some combination of Jason Hammel, Tommy Hunter, Tsuyoshi Wada, and Wei-Ying Chen will have to pleasantly surprise. And that’s just the rotation.

I don’t really see the bullpen as too much of an issue, as I don’t expect the Orioles to have too many leads. Ideally, someone will take Kevin Gregg though.

The lineup could be fairly solid. Nick Markakis will ideally regain the form that saw him put up 6.3 fWAR in 2008. Adam Jones will learn some patience and have a break out season. J.J. Hardy plays like he did last season, but doesn’t get injured. Matt Wieters continues to improve off of last year’s All Star season and becomes one of the game’s best catchers. Mark Reynolds moves to first base (or DH) and continues to hit while not giving back every run in the field. Brian Roberts returns successfully from his concussion, possibly generating some trade interest. Chris Davis and Nolan Reimold prove to be above average regulars. Really, the lineup is less of a worry than the rotation, as there at least seems to be more potential (or at least, more certain potential, if that makes sense).

On the farm system front, Dylan Bundy and Manny Machado continue to make strides in their development, the new front office has a highly successful draft, and several prospects are brought in by trading away any veterans that won’t be able to help the next time the Orioles are contending.

If that seems like a lot, that’s because it is. But if even a majority of these things go right, I’m not sure it will be enough to be a winning record. That won’t mean the season isn’t a success though.

What’s the floor for your team this season? What has to go wrong for them to miss the playoffs?

Left Field on the Yankees
What could go wrong for the Yankees in 2012? Well, of course, major injuries are every contender’s potential undoing, and New York is not a young team, so that concern might be higher on their list than most. But, beyond such difficult-to-predict scenarios, the obvious answer to what could go seriously wrong is that Pineda and Kuroda disappoint, Ivan Nova proves last year was a fluke, and Phil Hughes proves it wasn’t.

But, I’m also going to suggest another hard-to-fathom scenario. What if Mariano Rivera finally shows signs of aging? At 42 years old, it shouldn’t be hard to imagine, but his performance has yet to indicate this is a strong possibility. Still, it’s going to happen at some point, and if it does this year, it’s bound to cost the team a couple wins.

We almost know for certain that David Robertson will not repeat his 2011 performance, or at least that he won’t be quite as dominating as last year. But, Rafael Soriano certainly should improve. So, it’s hard to think the Yankees’ bullpen could be a weakness unless Rivera regresses significantly, which seems unlikely.

I can’t honestly see this team not finishing above .500, so my worst case scenario is around 85 wins. That number probably falls short of the playoffs, but in my opinion a lot has to go wrong for that to happen.

So, with the addition of a second wild card to MLB’s 2012 postseason, it’s highly unlikely so much could go so wrong that would result in the Bombers missing the playoffs. But, of course, anything’s possible.

Jonathan Mitchell on the Rays
The AL East is the toughest division in all of baseball, and possibly in all of the major sports, so the floor would have to be as a 4th place finisher. But a lot would have to go wrong for the Rays and right for the rest of the AL East for that to happen. The biggest hurdle for the Rays would be if they lost Evan Longoria or Ben Zobrist for any extended period of time. If this team stays healthy I don’t see a logical reason for them to miss the playoffs.

Bryan O’Connor on the Red Sox:
I think the spread between ceiling and floor is greater for Boston than for any other team in the league. Jon Lester could continue on the downward trajectory he’s been on since earning 6.4 fWAR in 2009. Josh Beckett could pitch like he did in ’06 and ’10. If Buchholz and Bard can’t pitch 350 innings between them, a ghastly crew could be forced into action against a grueling schedule with that left field wall way too close behind them for comfort.

The team will hit, but there are more areas of weakness this year than last year. The injury bug has already struck Carl Crawford, who may be the player we saw in 2011, one who can’t get on base enough to use his speed to his advantage. For all the vitriol spewed in JD Drew’s direction these last few years, he was an above average player on offense, defense, and the basepaths, and the group that replaces him—Cody Ross, Ryan Sweeney, Ryan Kalish, and Darnell McDonald—only brings the same skills if several of them are allowed to play at once. Similarly, losing Marco Scutaro and Jed Lowrie leaves an uninspiring group of shortstops led by Mike Aviles. And Jarrod Saltalamacchia should hit enough for a catcher, but he needs to prove he can carry the load as the primary backstop, manager of pitchers, and sheriff of opposing running games.

The bullpen has turned over almost completely, and could be shaky if Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon struggle to adjust to AL East lineups.

If a few of these worst-case scenarios play out, the Sox could miss the playoffs. If injuries strike the front end of the rotation, they could be a .500 team, which would likely put them in fourth place.

The Org Guy on the Blue Jays
Almost all you need to know about the Jays and the AL East, quite frankly, is that the floor that many see for the team is the ceiling that many others see: fourth place. The Yankees are still going to be awfully good. So are the Rays. And Boston was the best team in baseball for about half of last season (with such intense focus on the team’s September troubles, people forget just how good they were before that). The Jays need to overtake one of those three teams to even glimpse a one-game play-in against another wild card team. But with the Angels and Rangers in the West getting even better, there are no guarantees a third-place finish in the East gets you anything but a warm, fuzzy feeling heading into October.

Really, not much needs to go wrong for the Jays to miss the playoffs. That’s the status quo. I expect the team to be better than they were last year – say, 86 wins? – but I don’t think that would be enough to keep them playing into the fall.

Theo Gerome on the Orioles
Worst case scenario, the Orioles have an Orioles-type season, I suppose. They draft poorly, neglect their farm system, all potential goes unfulfilled, players get hurt, they hold onto players at the peak of their trade value for no adequately explained reason (cough—LukeScott—cough). But, I mean, if I expect that, is it really a worst case scenario?

Okay, how about this? Matt Wieters retires to become a hermit, Mark Reynolds decides to double down and field with a frying pan all while being inexplicably kept at third base, J.J. Hardy breaks his everything and misses the rest of all-time, Brian Matusz somehow does worse in the ERA department, Dylan Bundy accidentally murders Manny Machado (or vice versa), the Orioles get kicked out of Korea (oops), Kevin Gregg continues to pitch for the team; I could go on and on.

How do you see the division playing out? Is there one team you’re particularly afraid of?

Left Field
The Red Sox are worse on paper than they looked at the start of 2011, but there’s still a lot of talent there, a new leader, and nowhere to go but up, so they’re still dangerous. There’s no reason to believe the Rays will be any worse than last year either, so we could again see a season with three 90-win teams in the AL East, which would likely mean three postseason entrants.

But, with the addition of a fifth team in each league qualifying for the playoffs, it’s going to take strong seasons from the Red Sox, Rays and a second-place team outside of the AL East to prevent the Yankees from making the postseason. Personally, I just don’t see that happening.

However, despite all the good I’ve had to say about the AL East here, I also think a lot has to fall into place for any of the division’s three contenders to win it all. Of course, a lot can change over the course of a six-month season, but as of now I’m predicting the league’s World Series representative comes from outside the division.

Jonathan Mitchell
I see the division playing out as follows:

1. Rays
2. Yankees (Wild Card)
3. Red Sox
4. Blue Jays
5. Orioles

I believe that the top four teams will finish at, or over, .500 and this division race being one that lasts until the end of the season with the last Wild Card spot coming down to the Red Sox and the Angels and the Red Sox missing out on the last few days of the season.

There really isn’t one team that I am particularly afraid of; it’s more like three teams in the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays. If I had to choose one I think the Red Sox frighten me a bit, even with all the holes in their team. I think too many people are taking them for granted and their offense will still rank among the top 3 teams in the league. The Yankees are always scary, even if they are getting older, and the Jays are on the verge of a major breakout and it could happen this season. But, that’s what we love about this great sport. Anything can happen. There are no shot clocks, or timed quarters or periods. Anything is possible and all we have to do is look back to game 162 of last season if we need a reminder.

Bryan O’Connor
You may have seen my prediction here. I see the Yankees holding onto the division title by the slimmest of margins, but that assumes their older position players can at least stay on the field and that the new pitching acquisitions prove worthy. The Rays have a ton of upside, especially if Evan Longoria stays healthy and wins the MVP Award I predict he’ll win, and if Matt Moore can throw 200 innings anywhere near as effectively as he’s pitched at every stop on the way to the majors. I see the Red Sox finishing third and contending for the ridiculous second Wild Card spot with the lesser of the Angels and Rangers, but of course, they could also win the division by 10 games. Fourth place seems to be Toronto’s destiny, much like the cellar has Baltimore’s logo almost permanently emblazoned.

The Org Guy
I’ve mostly answered that above. I expect that by the end of September, some combination of the Rays, Yankees and Red Sox will be in a 1-2-3 position in the East. Really going out on a limb, I know.

But… but… players get injured. Players have breakthrough seasons. Players go into terrible slumps. I think the Jays have a superior lineup to most teams in the American League. I think they can hang with the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Tigers, Angels and Rangers – maybe not well enough to get to 90+ wins if all teams run their best out there every inning, but well enough to be the sort of team that you don’t want to see coming into town for a four-game set when you’re in the running for a playoff position yourself. And you never know, maybe this is the year the Jays are the ones in the running.

Theo Gerome
Well, the second one is easy. I’m terrified of the Orioles taking down the Orioles. That is not a typo.

I obviously expect the Orioles to finish last in the division, if you couldn’t tell. I expect the Blue Jays to finish fourth more out of habit. I don’t think they have enough right now to challenge the Big Three, but I see them as a dark horse. If enough goes right, they could make a run.

I expect the top of the division to be the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays in some order. The Rays, as of right now, are the one I see as weakest, but the also have the most upside with all of their young talent. Big years from Matt Moore, Desmond Jennings, and Jeremy Hellickson could make them even more formidable than last year. I think the Red Sox are, on paper, the second best team in the league. Injuries could hold them down like last year, but I think that was more of a fluke than anything else. That obviously leaves the Yankees in first, although they’re sort of the anti-Blue Jays. A lot could go wrong, and a lot of players could suddenly age very hard, but the safest assumption is to not predict an extreme scenario. Also, I expect those three teams to account for three of the (now five) playoff spots. Yep, it should be an exciting year at the top of the AL East. Here’s hoping the Orioles can join in the fight soon.

So, there you have it.

What did we learn from this exercise? That the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox all could be considered the AL East's team to beat, the Blue Jays are a team on the rise, and the Orioles are...well, the Orioles.

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