Sweet Nasty MLB Preview: N.L. East
The one you’ve all been waiting for! (Well, some of you, anyway…)
1) Boston Red Sox – I know. I know. I got it. Cause is a Sox fan. Blah, blah, blah. You can say, “Homer pick” all you want, but you know, deep down inside, position by position, the Red Sox have the best team in the American League. In fact…
THE SWEET: Depth. Former Sox GM Dan Duquette once said (and I’m paraphrasing) that rather than develop players in the minors, he’d rather just sign them as free agents. When Theo Epstein came on board, he turned that idea around 180 degrees. One guy has 2 World Series rings. One guy was run out of town on a rail. Not only will half of the Sox starting line up be home grown talent (including 2 of the top 3 vote getters for MVP last year), but so will half the bullpen. But the real strength is that they have real major league talent waiting for a chance in Triple-A, especially in the rotation. So if an injury happens, boom, a replacement is there. Or if Theo wants to make a move midseason, he has plenty of chips to bet with. And since this is the guy who traded Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez 4 years apart, we know Theo isn’t afraid of any moves.
THE NASTY: Manny Hangover. This offseason, the Sox lost out on Mark Teixeira. (That’s one way to look at it. Another would be that Teixeira was never going to go to Boston because, either he still held a grudge against the team for negotiations 3 GM’s ago, when he was drafted out of high school, and/or his wife hates Boston. And agent/greedy bastard Scott Boras used the Sox to drive up the price on the Yankees. That’s another way to look at it.) On the heels of those negotiations, David Ortiz said he felt like he doesn’t have protection in the lineup. He does, but if he thinks he doesn’t, that’s just as bad. If the whole team is sitting around, waiting for Manny to hit the 3-run homer, that’s bad. Without Manny, this team came within 1 game of back-to-back World Series. That’s the fact that they have to remember.
PREDICTION: The American League Pennant. The biggest problem last season was the bullpen. Enter Ramon Ramirez, Takashi Saito, and a full season of Justin Masterson, as the collective bridge to Jonathan Papelbon, and games at Fenway just got shorter. They are the most complete team in the AL, with a burning, athlete’s foot itch to return to the top of the baseball world. (There’s probably a better way to say that…)
2) New York Yankees – Be happy I didn’t pick the Rays here, Yankees fans. (And I came pretty close.) Apparently, the Yankees have started to date TI, because this offseason, they could have whatever they like… $423 million dollars to 3 guys. Some AIG executives think that’s excessive. Almost half a billion dollars to 2 pitchers and a 1st baseman. Those signings actually REDUCE their 2008 payroll by about $8 mil (about $210M total). And it will all be worth it if the Bombers can pop bottles all night in October…
THE SWEET: Big Stars. (This is the hardest section I have to write every year, but here goes.) The lights shine brightest on Broadway and the Yankees have some of the biggest. CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett, CM Wang, HGH Pettitte, and DUI Chamberlain are a top 5 rotation in MLB. Every batter in the lineup could hit .300 and knock in at least 60-80 runs. That’s every batter 1-9. That’s a nightmare for starting pitchers in the AL.
THE NASTY: $9 Pabst Blue Ribbons! 9! Oh, and Plugging Holes. Before you get too excited about Sabathia and Burnett, let’s review. Last year, the Yankees won 89 games, finished 8 games behind the Rays and 6 behind the Sox. And that’s with Mike Mussina having the best season of his career going 20-9, with a 3.37 ERA. Pettitte won 14 games (with 4.54 ERA). Wang only made 15 starts, but won 8. And Joba went 4-3 with 12 starts. There’s no Mussina this year, so replace him with Sabathia. (And it would be hard to really expect much more than Mussina’s numbers.) Can Pettitte win another 14? AJ Burnett had his best season last year (hmmm…in his free agent year…how ‘bout that…) and went 18-10, 4.07 ERA. Is that the real Burnett or are the previous 2 years, when he won 10 games each. (Because $1.65M per win, isn’t a great investment…) Wang is the key to the staff. His return is the only real addition from last year. And even then, he can only reasonably expect to add 10 wins. And frankly, I’d think better of this whole team if they put Joba back in the bullpen set up role for Mariano Rivera. On offense, the same hole plugging is true. No denying Teixeira is a great hitter, but so is Bobby Abreu. Together, Abreu and Giambi hit 52 HR, 196 RBI, and batted around .280. That’s combined and they’re gone. Will the 1B/RF combo of Teixeira and Nady, who hit .268 as a Yankee last year, have the same production? If they don’t, then how can this team truly be better than last year? And all of that will be without Alex Rodriguez for at least a month, at best, and a shell of himself for the rest of the season, at worst.
PREDICTION: I don’t know how you can make a case that this team is significantly better than not only last year’s team, but also the 2 teams that finished higher then they did last year. The Yankees will no doubt be in the Wild Card mix, but to expect more is unreasonable.
3) Tampa Bay Rays – Talk about house money! This team needed to spend an hour a day during Spring Training watching the 2008 year end DVD of the Colorado Rockies, so they can avoid a similar rise and fall. The Rays will find it is tougher to stay on top than it is to get there in the first place.
THE SWEET: The Best Core of Young Players in the Majors. Just look at that line up. The only position player over 30 is Carlos Pena, who’ll be 31 in May and has become reborn in Tampa. They make an upgrade at DH with Pat Burrell, who brings not only another 30 HR bat, but the experience of a champion. Oh, and he’s 32, or “Gramps” to his teammates. They have a terrific group of starting pitchers, also all under 30, and that’s without phenom David Price to start the year. Who would have thought that 10 years of top 5 draft picks would finally pay off?
THE NASTY: The Inevitable Drop Off. Congrats, Rays! You made it all the way to the World Series! The first team ever to go from worst to…well, 2nd! Now your fan base will expect that EVERY YEAR! That actually is a good thing. When I went to a Sox-Rays game in September last year, the place was packed, and not by just Red Sox fans. Of course, Boston fans were there, but it wasn’t a home game. But if you want your OWN fans back again, you have to be competitive. You can’t be the same young kids that overachieved for a season, now there are expectations. So, congratulations. Now do it again.
PREDICTION: Yes, a drop off, but not a big Rock-ian (Rockies-ian? I always mix those up…) one. This team will be very competitive, very tough to face, and will very much be in the mix for the AL Wild Card.
4) Toronto Blue Jays – To everyone who thought that the Blue Jays would be competitive last year, you must be on the Lady GaGa Drinking Plan. (Seriously, you lose your keys, your phone, your purse. You’re so drunk that you don’t know what club you’re in, but it will all be ok if you JUST DANCE?!?!? Because I’m sure a fine, upstanding gentleman will give you a lift home and get you a locksmith. No way you could ever be taken advantage of in that position. No way. More likely, some guy will Poker Face. P-p-poker face. Maybe I’m talking about Lady GaGa too much, but it kinda beats talking about this Blue Jays team…)
THE SWEET: Roy Halliday. Without Doc Halliday, this team would be lucky to win 65 games. He has one of the strongest wills to win in the league. How else do you explain pitching at least 220 innings each of the last 3 seasons, with 20 complete games, for a 4th place team? The guy is a machine, will be 32 in May, and is the franchise player. He is also their best trading chip on a path to relevancy. The team says they’ll never trade him, but if they’re 20 games out at the All-Star break and ol’ Roy goes to management and says, “I gotta see what it’s like to win before it’s too late,” then Halliday becomes the most sought after trade deadline gem of 2009.
THE NASTY: Everything Else. Last year at this time, the Blue Jays were thinking that a few breaks their way and they are a major contender in the AL. Then Frank Thomas happened. Then John Gibbons was fired. And now 2/5ths of the starting rotation is out for the year with various surgeries. But they do have 2 starters on the Underachieving 9 in Vernon Wells and Alex Rios. Rios, Halliday, Lyle Overbay, and closer BJ Ryan are all most likely gone by August as the reset button is officially pushed. UnfortunatelY, Wells can’t be trAded, because No one would take on that Kind of contract for an oft-injured, underachieving cEnter fielder, unless thEy were deSperate.
PREDICTION: About a 35% turnover on the roster from the end of Spring Training to August 31st. Oh, and sending a thank you card to the Baltimore Orioles.
5) Baltimore Orioles – Its amazing that the top 3 teams in this division can be so good and so complete, and the bottom 2 be so not. In addition to not having a real, major league roster, the Orioles have to play the Red Sox, Yanks, and Rays about a third of the time. That’s going to be about 40 losses, just in the division. Luckily, they get to play the Jays about 18 times…
THE SWEET: The Audacity of Hope. You can’t take hope away if people want to hold onto it. And we’ll go ahead and assume that the last remaining Orioles fans are clutching it with both hands. The team made a run at Teixeira, a hometown kid. Strike 1. Tried to get Burnett? Strike 2. But did manage to pick up Felix Pie (once Lou Pinella did more psychological damage to him than David Archuletta’s father did to him during last year’s American Idol), Ty Wiggington, and Greg Zaun in the offseason. Strike 3. C’mon Matt Weiters! No pressure, but you will have the weight of the entire franchise on your catcher’s mask when you get here. Any time… Whenever you’re ready…
THE NASTY: Triple-A Roster. This Orioles team is actually an embarrassment to major league rosters. Fans should storm Camden Yards in protest. Season tickets must have been in my family for generations for me to re-up to watch Nick Markakis try and knock in Brian Roberts for the O’s only chance to win any game? (Which wouldn’t matter because there is no way the starting staff of Jeremy Guthrie, Koji Uehara, Adam Eaton, Alfredo Simon and Mark Hendrickson will have an ERA under 5.50.) Their website is advertising ticket packages – when the Yankees and Red Sox come to town! “13 game mini plans, including games against NYY & BOS starting at $159.” I get to see the Sox AND you’ll pay me $159? Ok, I’ll take that deal, but if I wanted to pay to watch the Sox play against that level of talent, I would have gotten Spring Training tickets, but only watched innings 7, 8, and 9.
PREDICTION: A 162 game plan in last place in the AL.