2009 MLB Preview: American League East

As Opening Day 2009 fast approaches — a little faster than I’d like considering what I’m trying to accomplish here, though I’m more than fine with it otherwise — I thought I’d take a more expansive look at the upcoming Major League Baseball season. For those who don’t care to read my exhaustive rambling, I produced an easy-to-digest version of this all-you-can-eat buffet of baseball-related banality right here.

With that out of the way, let’s not even pretend that I don’t contribute, however little, to the dreaded East Coast Bias.

Yep, it’s AL East time. Teams appear in order of last year’s finish.

rays

The defending American League Champion Rays stunned just about everyone who follows baseball last year (with the possible exception of my friend Brian, who claims that in his sleep-deprived haze during last year’s A’s-Red Sox opener in Japan he had the foresight to tell me that the Rays would win the American League. I was too busy cursing Daisuke Matsuzaka’s constant nibbling and J.D. Drew’s wonky back to notice or care) when they made the leap from perennial punching bag/disgrace to a fairly great team that merely plays in an unspeakably disgraceful venue.

Whereas the question a year ago at this time in the eyes of the people who had given the Rays any respect was if they’d finally manage to win at least 82 games, the question today is can the Rays repeat as champions of the AL East and the American League? The best answer is, they can, but they’re going to need to catch quite a few breaks.

The majority of those breaks are probably going to relate to their pitching staff. To me, the only huge question mark their offense has — besides the anemic Jason Bartlett, who they can easily hide in the ninth spot — is whether Dioner Navarro’s breakout season last year was a fluke or a sign of things to come. At 24, Navarro obviously has age on his side. And most catchers take longer to break out than your typical position player, likely due to the increased demands of the position. Still, he hadn’t done much with the bat prior to last season, even in the minor leagues, so it’s not like a slam dunk that he’ll be flirting with .300 for the next several years. (You’ll notice that I don’t have these concerns about Evan Longoria.) The Rays made it clear last year that they can account for one hole in the lineup, but Navarro’s emergence may have been a lot more crucial than it’s widely given credit for. One needn’t look much further than the catching situations of the other class teams in the division a year ago and how their offenses didn’t seem especially terrifying when they were trotting out Jose Molina instead of Jorge Posada and the corpse of Jason Varitek instead of the Jason Varitek that was capable of hitting.

As for the rest of the Rays offense, well, it’s going to be very good. The key hitters that have departed from last year include such names as Rocco Baldelli, Cliff Floyd and Eric Hinske. Hinske had a solid rebound season in 2008, and Baldelli gave them a lift during the stretch run, but they’re not irreplaceable players. For proof, just have a look at the new designated hitter for the Rays, Pat Burrell, who should be more than suitable to step in for the oft-injured Floyd. The Rays also nabbed Matt Joyce from the Tigers, which should give them even more depth in the outfield following Baldelli’s move to the Red Sox. Ben Zobrist will probably see more time to account for Hinske’s departure, and we’re probably not far off from seeing Reid Brignac in some form on the big club (maybe even as Bartlett’s replacement in the lineup should Navarro regress.)

If you view the offensive personnel changes during the offseason as a push, or something close to that, there’s reason to be optimistic about Tampa’s offense in 2009, especially when you consider that B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford and Longoria all missed time a year ago. Provided they stay healthy, the Tampa Bay Rays offense should remain one of the most dangerous in the AL.

Of course, they may need a lot of those extra runs if their bullpen fails to maintain its unbelievable ability to play over its collective head. In particular, journeyman relievers like Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler had huge years in 2008 and were heavily responsible for the meteoric rise of the Rays. But as great as each man’s season was, it’s infrequent that pitchers have their big breakouts in their 30s — Roger Clemens notwithstanding. What this suggests, and what their batted ball numbers from last year also imply, is that both pitchers had career years that will be nearly impossible to duplicate. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say Tampa would be lucky if both relievers manage to come anywhere close to last year’s numbers, given how luck tends to balance out in the majors. J.P. Howell is another guy to watch for a regression, though he is closer to his prime and probably less likely to completely implode, though his control could become an issue.

The starting rotation remains 80 percent intact with only #5 starter Edwin Jackson departing. (He was sent to Detroit in the Joyce trade.) Jackson will initially be replaced in the rotation by Jeff Niemann, though his leash won’t necessarily be a long one given the performance of prospect Wade Davis during spring training, not to mention baseball’s top pitching prospect, David Price, who the Rays surprisingly decided against carrying on the opening day roster.

My feeling is that the Rays will still be a very good team this year, but I have serious doubts that their pitching will be able to carry them as much as it did a year ago. And as the Devil Rays proved in the past, your team can have a lot of offensive talent, but it means nothing if you can’t get the outs on the other side of the ball. I look for the Rays to stumble in 2009, but with their stacked minor league system, I have trouble envisioning a total collapse. They should be in pretty good shape for a long, long time.

KEY ADDS: Pat Burrell, DH; Matt Joyce, OF
KEY LOSSES: Cliff Floyd, DH; Rocco Baldelli, OF; Eric Hinske, 1B/3B/OF

PROJECTED OPENING DAY LINEUP:
1.) Carl Crawford, LF
2.) B.J. Upton, CF (assuming he makes it to opening day)
3.) Evan Longoria, 3B
4.) Carlos Pena, 1B
5.) Pat Burrell, DH
6.) Akinori Iwamura, 2B
7.) Gabe Gross, RF
8.) Dioner Navarro, C
9.) Jason Bartlett, SS

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
1.) Scott Kazmir, LHP
2.) James Shields, RHP
3.) Matt Garza, RHP
4.) Andy Sonnanstine, RHP
5.) Jeff Niemann, RHP
Key Relievers: Grant Balfour, RHP; J.P. Howell, LHP; Dan Wheeler, RHP; Brian Shouse, LHP
Closer: Troy Percival, RHP

redsox

The 2007 World Champions were just one game short of a repeat trip to the World Series in October following their improbable comeback in Game 5 at Fenway (when the Rays bullpen that you may want to get used to seeing in 2009 appeared prematurely) and a tightrope act by Josh Beckett in Game 6 in Tampa.

Then this happened:

Yeah, take your time down in Durham, there, Dave. Your teammates should be fine.

Anyway, as something of a Sox fan, my worries at the end of last year were that we’d somehow end up paying Varitek millions of dollars worth of loyalty money and that Tim Wakefield and Mike Timlin would somehow end up back on the roster in 2009. In what might best be classified as a stalemate between myself and the universe as a whole, 1.5 of those things actually happened. Wakefield’s back to take up two roster spots, and Tek came crawling back after declining arbitration following an All-Star campaign in which he batted like a buck fifty and had -4 homeruns. But man, he can really call a game. He’s like a computer back there. Or so I’ve been told.

The full victory goes to the long-awaited departure of Timlin, who received the honor of being the first athlete I truly ripped on in a published article several years ago. The article wasn’t even about sports.

Now, of the three, Timlin’s exit was probably the move that I felt was most necessary. I haven’t felt comfortable with him on the mound in years — even when he went nuts in the 2003 postseason, there was still that uneasiness that we were relying on Mike freaking Timlin in high leverage situations. And that was five years ago. He was solid then. The last few years have been downright terrifying, and seeing him on the mound in a crucial spot opposite David Price in Game 2 of the ALCS was the moment when I decided that enough was enough. Mercifully, it appears I wasn’t alone in that opinion.

As far as Varitek goes, the guy is pretty well cooked as an offensive threat. If the Sox are lucky, they’ll get an occasional homer here and there, but to expect anything significant from the captain is probably expecting too much. The pitchers do seem to swear by him for the most part, and for that reason I don’t think of his re-signing as a complete loss. However, I’m hoping that he will be utilized as a transitional backstop should his struggles continue in the first half of the ’09 season. Whether or not George Kottaras is the answer remains to be seen. I half expect to see the Sox end up with someone like Kenji Johjima before year’s end (that’s just off the top of my head — I’m assuming he’s in the last year of his contract, but that could be wrong).

I think that there’s still a spot for Wakefield on this team, too, but it’s probably in the bullpen. This is especially true given the additions of John Smoltz and Brad Penny. If both of those arms prove to be healthy, I think Wakefield should be the odd man out of the rotation. The knuckler might be most useful out of the pen, anyway, given how unpredictable that pitch can be.

Boston’s lineup should look very similar to the one it ran out during the 2008 playoffs. Only Coco Crisp is gone, replaced by Jacoby Ellsbury, who saw plenty of time a year ago anyway. Jason Bay will also be playing his first full season in Beantown after being dealt for Manny Ramirez last year.

As far as the order goes, I’d like to see some changes — most notably the relocation of David Ortiz. Look, when Ortiz had Manny to back him up in years past, it was easier to justify Ortiz as the #3 hitter. But the combination of last year’s struggles and the lack of a true, out-of-this-world power threat to hit behind him would tempt me to drop Big Papi to the #4 or even #5 spot in the lineup. That’s not to slight the best clutch hitter in Boston sports history, but to me, Dustin Pedroia, J.D. Drew and Kevin Youkilis as the top three makes a lot more sense than a combination of two of them, Ortiz, and the third. Or two of them, Ortiz, Lowell, and then the third.

If only we had a switch-hitting power bat to fill that cleanup spot. (Hey, for what’s it worth I didn’t want Teixeira, but was hoping we’d get Adam Dunn on the cheap instead. Call it another stalemate.)

Anyway, here’s how I’d draw up my opening day lineup (provided Drew’s healthy enough to play, always a tricky prospect):
Dustin Pedroia, 2B
J.D. Drew, RF
Kevin Youkilis, 1B
David Ortiz, DH
Mike Lowell, 3B
Jason Bay, LF
Jed Lowrie, SS
Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
Jason Varitek, C

I have a theory as to why Ellsbury should bat ahead of Varitek (besides the obvious) that I’ll probably delve into further should I ever get to previewing the Mets. The rest I’ve pretty much explained, though Lowell and Bay are fairly interchangable in the lineup.

As for the actual projected opening day lineup and projected starting rotation, we’ll have that…

…right after I note that I loved the Saito signing and all and all am very excited by the pitching depth the Sox have acquired, which isn’t even to mention the Junichi Tazawa signing, or that Daniel Bard is looming, etc., etc., etc.

KEY ADDS: John Smoltz, SP; Brad Penny, SP; Takashi Saito, RP; Rocco Baldelli, OF
KEY LOSSES: Coco Crisp, CF; Paul Byrd, SP (hooray!); David Aardsma, RP

PROJECTED OPENING DAY LINEUP (no, it’s different):
Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
Dustin Pedroia, 2B
David Ortiz, DH
Kevin Youkilis, 1B
J.D. Drew, RF
Jason Bay, LF
Mike Lowell, 3B
Jed Lowrie, SS
Jason Varitek, C

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
1.) Josh Beckett, RHP
2.) Jon Lester, LHP
3.) Daisuke Matsuzaka, RHP
4.) Tim Wakefield, RHP/John Smoltz, RHP
5.) Brad Penny, RHP
Key Relievers: Hideki Okajima, LHP; Justin Masterson, RHP; Manny Delcarmen, RHP; Takashi Saito, RHP
Closer: Jonathan Papelbon, RHP

nyy

It should be well established by now that I am not the biggest supporter of the New York Yankees. That being said, with as little bias as possible, I offer you my genuine take on the 2008 New York Yankees: What a shitty team.

I mean, what was the highlight of last season for the Yankees? Hosting the All-Star Game? Derek Jeter passing a bunch of Yankee legends on the franchise hits list? (I believe I was there in person when he went past Mickey Mantle.) Mike Mussina finally winning 20 games? The team taking a victory lap around The Toilet one last time after beating the Orioles? Jason Giambi’s mustache? The astonishing return of Sidney Ponson? The whole Ortiz jersey fiasco? All those guys stealing dirt? The franchise-changing acquisition of Xavier Nady? The brief return of pariah Carl Pavano? Pudge’s much-anticipated debut in pinstripes? Brian Cashman’s heady discovery of the independent leagues as an untapped source of Major League talent?

Bottom line, it was a lost year for the Bronx Bombers in ’08. (By the way, their manager sucks.) Key players like Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui missed time. Chien-Ming Wang was victimized by the arduous task of playing National League baseball and was out for a while. Alleged phenom Phil Hughes was discovered to be equal parts blind and gimpy. Ian Kennedy somehow failed to maintain the ability he displayed in 2007 to limit Major League hitters to a composite average below .200. Plus, the new manager sucked.

After making a note of these things, the Steinbrenner clan put their heads together to come up with a scheme that’d bring the third-place Yankees back to prominence in their division and league in 2009.

And so, as millions of Americans bitched and moaned about how shitty the economy was, the New York Yankees went on a spending spree, first outbidding themselves for the services of CC Sabathia, then adding injury prone A.J. Burnett. They also went out and got themselves apparent madman Nick Swisher to replace the Giambino at first.

At this stage, my only recourse was to laugh at them. Don’t get me wrong, Sabathia’s put together a couple great years recently. But I don’t see how spending $160 million on a fat guy whose appeal is just as much about how many innings he eats up (I’m going to show restraint here) as it is about what a winner he is (And in the postseason, this man is not a winner. The Sox, in particular, feast on him, small sample size notwithstanding.) is a slam dunk great signing. It actually seems pretty risky to me.

On Burnett’s end of things, he doesn’t represent a risk so much as a mortal lock for injury. This is going to turn into yet another in a laundry list of utterly retarded pitching adds made by Cashman. You’d think the guy would’ve learned his lesson with Pavano, but no. Now, I’m not saying he’s going to be as comically “prone” to “injury” as Pavano was — but if they’re counting on him for 200 innings, well, that’s probably a mistake.

Swisher is a nice player, but he’s nothing to get excited about.

So once this crop was reeled in by the Yankees, I still felt fine, particularly since they had already lost Bobby Abreu and Jason Giambi, which obviously weakened the lineup.

Then they went out and bought Mark Teixeira, as well.

Sharp move.

I’m doing this off of the top of my head, but I believe Teixeira will slide right in to essentially the same payscale as Giambi. Maybe even less. Either way, he’s especially valuable to the Yankees because the Red Sox were long rumored to be the landing point for Tex. And, while I’ve noted already that I don’t buy into the hype about Teixeira as much as most, he’s still obviously a very capable ballplayer — particularly in the second half, an anti-Nady, if you will — and will help fill the void left by Abreu and Giambi’s departures nicely.

Oh, and they’ve also got A-Rod, once his hip heals. If only there was a way for him to recover faster.

KEY ADDS: CC Sabathia, SP; Mark Teixeira, 1B; A.J. Burnett, SP; Nick Swisher, 1B/OF
KEY LOSSES: Mike Mussina, SP; Bobby Abreu, OF; Jason Giambi, OF; Darrell Rasner, SP

PROJECTED OPENING DAY LINEUP:
Derek Jeter, SS
Johnny Damon, LF
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Hideki Matsui, DH
Jorge Posada, C
Xavier Nady, RF
Robinson Cano, 2B
Cody Ransom, 3B
Brett Gardner, CF

Obviously, A-Rod slides in the #3 or #4 spot when he returns. He probably belongs at #3.

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
1.) CC Sabathia, LHP
2.) Chien-Ming Wang, RHP
3.) A.J. Burnett, RHP
4.) Andy Pettitte, LHP
5.) Joba Chamberlain, RHP
Key Relievers: Um, they don’t really have any.
Closer: Mariano Rivera (except for this guy.)

jaysIt’d be a struggle to get much out of this team’s offseason from a creative standpoint, so I figure, why even bother?

The biggest “add” is probably going to be a full year of big-time hitting prospect Travis Snider, who looked strong in 73 Big League at-bats last year.

The biggest loss for the Blue Jays will almost certainly turn out to be the defection of A.J. Burnett to the division rival Yankees. The Jays’ starting pitching situation is already pretty shaky given injuries to Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan.

KEY ADDS: I don’t know, did they even keep Kevin Millar?
KEY LOSSES: A.J. Burnett, SP

PROJECTED OPENING DAY LINEUP:
Alex Rios, RF
Lyle Overbay, 1B
Vernon Wells, CF
Scott Rolen, 3B
Travis Snider, DH
Adam Lind, LF
Rod Barajas, C
Joe Inglett, 2B
John McDonald, SS

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
1.) Roy Halladay, RHP
2.) Jesse Litsch, RHP
3.) David Purcey, LHP
4.) Ricky Romero, LHP
5.) Scott Richmond, RHP
Key Relievers: Scott Downs, LHP; Jesse Carlson, LHP; Brian Tallet, LHP; Brandon League, RHP
Closer: B.J. Ryan, LHP

oriolesThey haven’t been an elite team in the division for about 10 years now, but the Orioles made some noise in the offseason, turning over a noticeable portion of the team. The majority of last year’s starting rotation was replaced, as was the catcher they threw to and sometimes-cleanup hitter Kevin Millar ended up having to settle for a minor league contract with the division rival Toronto Blue Jays. (And boy does that speak volumes about the quality of Baltimore’s lineup a year ago.) The most common elements of last year’s platoon at shortstop also got the axe.

What this left was a core of Oriole mainstays like Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis and Melvin Mora, along with Aubrey Huff, who had a big year last year, and some younger players like Adam Jones and — coming soon — Matt Wieters. Offensively, that’s not a bad core.

Stunningly, the Orioles actually recognized this and went out and added to this core. They signed Cesar Izturis, who should give them solid defense while being hidden in the ninth spot. They snatched Gregg Zaun from the Blue Jays to spell Wieters early on while the O’s try to save money by keeping him in the minors for the first couple months of the year. They also added Ty Wigginton to the fold, and added utilityman Ryan Freel.

On the pitching side of things… well, they did take a chance on Japanese star Koji Uehara. They also nabbed Rich Hill in a trade (along with Felix Pie) and signed journeyman Mark Hendrickson. Those names will replace Daniel Cabrera, Garrett Olson and Brian Burres in the rotation. Apparently non-roster invitee Adam Eaton also has a shot at one of the rotation spots. (That sounds like bad news.)

Closer Chris Ray’s return from injury will also bump George Sherrill up an inning in the bullpen, which shouldn’t hurt too much, either.

While I don’t see them winning the division or even the wild card or anything like that, I expect the Orioles to be an improved baseball team in 2009.

KEY ADDS: Ty Wigginton, 3B/OF; Koji Uehara, SP; Rich Hill, SP; Felix Pie, OF; Gregg Zaun, C; Mark Hendrickson, SP
KEY LOSSES: Kevin Millar, 1B; Daniel Cabrera, SP; Jay Payton, OF; Garrett Olson, SP; Brian Burres, SP; Alex Cintron/Juan Castro/Brandon Fahey, SS

PROJECTED OPENING DAY LINEUP:
Brian Roberts, 2B
Melvin Mora, 3B
Nick Markakis, RF
Aubrey Huff, 1B
Ty Wigginton, DH
Adam Jones, CF
Gregg Zaun, C
Felix Pie, LF
Cesar Izturis, SS

Wow. You plug Wieters into that lineup, and it’s going to suck, especially, to be someone like David Purcey this summer.

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
1.) Jeremy Guthrie, RHP
2.) Koji Uehara, RHP
3.) Mark Hendrickson, LHP
4.) Adam Eaton, RHP
5.) Rich Hill, LHP
Key Relievers: George Sherrill, LHP; Jim Johnson, RHP; Jamie Walker, LHP
Closer: Chris Ray, RHP

(Deep breath) Five more divisions to go. And THEN I’ll give my predictions. And then hopefully it’ll be opening day.

Logo photos courtesy of sportslogos.net.

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