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Friday, February 6, 2009

Mike Bradley: AL East Preview

Last year, the AL East was turned upside-down. Literally.

The perennial bottom dweller Tampa Bay Rays shocked the world, won the AL East, and advanced to their first World Series appearance in the franchise’s short history. Meanwhile, the notorious New York Yankees were floundering, much to the dismay of their fans and much to the pleasure of every other baseball fan in the world. The Red Sox grabbed the wild card, the Blue Jays failed to live up to lofty expectations yet again, and the Orioles…..enough said.

With the low probability that the Yankees won’t bounce back, the Red Sox won’t compete, and the Rays won’t produce an encore performance, the AL East looks like it’s ready for another dog fight. Here are my projections for the 2009 MLB season in the AL East:

        1.      Boston Red Sox 98-64

Usually big spenders when the offseason rolls around, Theo Epstein and Co. found themselves bargain-hunting this year. After getting clowned by the Yankees in the Mark Teixeira sweepstakes, the Red Sox didn’t start panic spending. Instead, they handed out low risk-high reward, incentive-laden deals to the likes of ex-aces Brad Penny and John Smoltz, bolstered their bullpen by signing ex-Dodgers closer Takashi Saito, and tapped the Japanese talent pool yet again with their signing of 22-year old flamethrower Junichi Tazawa. The return of Jason Varitek, coupled with an expected return to dominance by Josh Beckett, only helps the cause of the deep Boston pitching core. With AL MVP Dustin Pedroia and MVP-vote getter Kevin Youkilis with new contracts in hand, much of the same production can be expected from the two grinders. David Ortiz’s health will of course be a point of focus, as well as his possible decline in production as he gets older. However, if JD Drew can stay healthy, Jacoby Ellsbury can become what he was billed as coming out of Oregon State, and Jason Bay can do his best Manny Ramirez impression, the Red Sox should reclaim their spot atop the AL East. Oh yeah. Jonathon Papelbon is an ok closer, too.


        2.      New York Yankees 96-66 (Wild Card)

Hank Steinbrenner’s first offseason at the helm of the Yankees won’t soon be forgotten. Investing $300+ million dollars into the likes of CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and A.J. Burnett was the first stamp in what is sure to be an interesting and expensive tenure for the son of one of the most polarized owners in baseball (if not sports) history. Sticking the switch-hitting Teixeira in the middle of a lineup consisting of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Hideki Matsui is enough to make any pitching staff have nightmares. However, the scariest part of the Yankees is that the starting pitching seems poised to hold onto the big leads the offense is going to give them. With the previously stated acquisitions of Sabathia and Burnett, the return to health of Chien-Ming Wang, and perhaps and full season of the Joba Chamberlain Experience, the Yankees may have their best rotation since the glory years in the late 90s. The bullpen, outside of the immortal Mariano Rivera, is another story entirely. The 8th inning role now belongs to the volatile Damaso Marte, while the middle relief roles are seemingly going to untested rookies or journeymen looking for a place to stick. In the end, this lack of bullpen stability will probably end up being the Yankees Achilles’ heel in their attempt to overtake the Red Sox for the division late in the season.


        3.      Tampa Bay Rays 89-73

A great story in 2008, the Rays undoubtedly inspired the likes of the Arizona Cardinals and the Utah Utes in their respective runs with the “underdog” title attached to them. Pardon me, however, if I’m skeptical that they can duplicate the same exact season as last year’s Cinderella run. Too many things went right for the Rays last year to think it can all happen again. What are the odds they get 30 starts from the volatile Matt Garza again? Or even the 27 starts they were lucky enough to get from the fragile Scott Kazmir? And Tampa Bay’s Christ reincarnated, David Price, is looking to prove his October performance wasn’t a fluke. But he can he do it every 5 days, 30+ times a year? I see a Francisco Liriano-like “elbow strain” in the near future. There’s still a lot like about this offense, especially with the addition of a personal favorite in Pat Burrell. However, it gets harder to drive in runs when the bullpen consistently gives them back, and (like the Yankees) the Rays of a serious lack of consistent relief pitching to protect leads. And they don’t have a Mariano Rivera at the back end of their ‘pen. It’s midnight. Cinderella’s time is up (for this season, at least).


        4.      Toronto Blue Jays 82-80

Every offseason, the Jays usually go into things attempting to play the money game and catch up with the Yankees and Red Sox. In a year where the Rays have bypassed them, the Jays actually subtracted more than they added. After deciding to let A.J. Burnett leave via free agency to one of the teams they need to compete with (Yankees), Toronto did little to make up for this major loss. The line-up looks very similar to the offense that finished fourth in the AL last year. With all the additions made by the teams already in front of them, it’s hard to envision the Blue Jays doing any better than last year’s performance. With promising youngsters Adam Lind and Travis Snider looking prepared to help cornerstones Vernon Wells and Alex Rios in the offense, superstar Roy Halladay can only hope one or two of his rotation mates can put together a formidable season to make up for Burnett’s loss. Jesse Litsch looks like a promising pitcher, but after that, the Jays are going to have to rely on the legendary arms of the likes of Casey Janssen and Brian Burres. Thank God there’s on more team in this division…


        5.      Baltimore Orioles 65-97

These aren’t your daddy’s Orioles…and for that reason, the Baltimore area is in a state of depression. Gone are the days of Jim Palmer, Cal Ripken, Jr., or even Jimmy Key and Mike Mussina. The 2009 Orioles are going to look much like the 2008 Orioles, and the 2007 Orioles, and the 2006 Orioles, and so on and so forth. Having not topped 70 wins since 2005, the Orioles have been in a long-time rebuilding effort without much of a foundation to build on. The Miguel Tejada and Javy Lopez signings were busts, Teixeira didn’t want to come home, and Peter Angelos is still the owner there. Sure Nick Markakis, Brian Roberts, and Adam Jones are nice players, Aubrey Huff revived his career, Felix Pie has a lot of potential, and super catching prospect Matt Wieters is going to hit roughly 120 home runs and drive in around 300 runs. But name me 3 of their starters. I can wait. Beyond breakout (by Baltimore standards) starter Jeremy Guthrie, you’re looking at an unknown entity in Japanese signee Koji Uehara, Cubs castoff Rich Hill, and an assortment of C-level prospects. At least Joe Flacco looks like he’s the real deal!


AL East MVP: Jason Bay

AL East Cy Young: CC Sabathia

AL East Rookie of the Year: Matt Wieters

AL East Studliest Player: Pat Burrell *

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