Our divisional previews conclude with ESPN’s favorite division and the most difficult division in baseball to predict, the AL East. Let’s try to sort this out:
Tampa Bay Rays
Notable offseason additions: Yunel Escobar, Kelly Johnson, Wil Myers
Notable losses: Carlos Pena, BJ Upton, James Shields
Outlook: The Rays were the best team in baseball to not make the playoffs last year, but I think they’ll have better fortune in 2013. The offense doesn’t look amazing on paper, but the Rays have never been concerned with how they look on paper. Evan Longoria is one of the best players in baseball as long as he’s healthy, Ben Zobrist is perhaps the single most underrated player in baseball, and Matt Joyce is creeping up that underrated list as well. Desmond Jennings has shown flashes of living up to his massive potential, and is still plenty young enough that he may yet do so. Yunel Escobar and Luke Scott are terrible people, but solid players. And Wil Myers will be up sooner or later, a popular Rookie of the Year pick despite the fact he’s starting the year in AAA.
Losing Shields is certainly a big blow to the rotation, but the Rays should still be solid there as well. David Price is a stud coming off a Cy Young campaign, seems to somehow still be getting better, and is only 27. It’s very easy to envision former megaprospect Matt Moore declaring 2012 a warm-up and fully breaking out this year—not that he was even that bad last year. Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb are both solid young arms, and the Rays have a deep pool of prospects to call on should they need them, including Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, and Mike Montgomery.
The Rays also have the X factor of being the best run franchise in baseball. Joe Maddon is the best manager in the game, and Andrew Friedman is the best GM. Nobody gets more out of their talent or exploits every single advantage, no matter how small, quite like the Rays. This might be the closest division in baseball to call, but I think the Rays have enough to pull it off.
Toronto Blue Jays
Notable offseason additions: Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Emilio Bonifacio, RA Dickey, Melky Cabrera
Notable losses: Yunel Escobar, Kelly Johnson, Henderson Alvarez
Outlook: Undisputed Offseason Champions! The Blue Jays went all-in in a nearly unprecedented manner this offseason, signing Melky Cabrera the same day as their blockbuster with the Marlins, and then followed that up with a second blockbuster deal for Dickey. They burnt down the farm system, but in doing so added more impact talent in one offseason than any other team I can think of in recent memory. This has made them a popular preseason playoff pick (or PPPP, to use an acronym I just made up), but let’s take a step back for a moment. Toronto only won 73 games last year. That means they need to add another 15-20 to really have playoff hopes, and that is a huge number. Did they really add that many?
Well, yes actually, or pretty damn close. Reyes and Melky are going to love batting in front of Jose Bautista, who is simply terrifying, and Edwin Encarnacion, who exploded for 42 HR last year. Add in Brett Lawrie and the home run juice seemingly introduced to the Toronto water supply around 2009-2010, and this should be one of the better offenses in the AL.
The rotation was a tire fire in 2012. Ricky Romero, who had appeared to be developing into an ace, became so thoroughly broken he’s now been sent all the down to Single A, and a Biblical plague of injuries struck the remainder of their starters. The additions of Dickey, Johnson, and Buehrle should give the rotation a massive boost, and it should be very good as long as it stays healthy. Johnson and Brandon Morrow have never been the picture of health, though, and should they go down, Toronto’s lack of depth could again become exposed. Overall, I’m sipping the Blue Jays Kool-Aid, not gulping it down, enough to give them a Wild Card, but not quite the division.
New York Yankees
Notable offseason additions: Travis Hafner, Kevin Youkilis, panic
Notable losses: Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez, Andruw Jones, Eric Chavez
Outlook: The Yankees are the only team in baseball older and more fragile than the Phillies, and that’s really saying something. It has really started to show in the Yankees’ nightmarish March, as well, with Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson suffering major injuries, Derek Jeter suffering a setback in his recovery from a broken ankle, and Phil Hughes having back issues. That’s on top of A-Rod’s already-existing major hip issues. And Teixeira and Granderson weren’t even on the Yankees’ lengthy list of injury concerns coming into the year. You can count the current Yankees who aren’t over 35 or injury-prone or in decline/already terrible (or often more than one of these 3 categories) on one hand. Don’t believe me? Let’s give it a shot. Robinson Cano. CC Sabathia. David Robertson. Ivan Nova, and we’re already stretching. I’ll even give you David Phelps, who isn’t exactly proven, and we still did it.
Now, despite how bleak that sounds, the Yankees could still be a pretty good team (and let’s be honest, they likely will be if only to annoy most of the country.) Despite the bottom half of the lineup being a hilarious collection of emergency Plan Bs to start the year, the top half could still be pretty great. Robinson Cano is the best 2B in baseball, and it’s not particularly close. Brett Gardner, as long as he remains healthy is massively underrated, which is a hard trick to pull off as a Yankee. Ichiro, Hafner, and Youkilis all appear to be in various states of decline, but if Raul Ibanez, Andruw Jones, and Eric Chavez have taught us anything, it’s that nobody is too old or too washed up for the Yankees to not squeeze a productive 400 ABs out of.
The rotation looks like New York’s biggest strength at the moment. Sabathia remains a stud, and his size has surprising not affected his durability at all so far. Hiroki Kuroda also pulls off the feat of somehow being underrated in New York, but he’s also 38. Andy Pettitte looked as good as ever down the stretch last year, but he’s 41. Nova, Phelps, and Hughes all have the potential to be decent middle of the rotation arms.
Overall, the Yankees are one of the harder teams to project for 2013, simply because there are just so many question marks. They could become overwhelmed by age and injury and we could see the first losing Yankee team since 1992. Or Jeter, Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera could summon the magic of their True Yankee Power Rings, and will the team into the playoffs one more time. I’m splitting the difference again, and giving them a winning record, but no October baseball. What’s really going to be interesting is after this season, if they fully commit to their austerity measures and start to operate (closer to) the same way most of baseball has to, which might mean letting Cano and/or Granderson walk.
Boston Red Sox
Notable offseason additions: Ryan Dempster, Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Joel Hanrahan, Jonny Gomes, Koji Uehara
Notable losses: Cody Ross, Mike Aviles. The trade of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett was technically last year, but it’s too big to not include here as well.
Outlook: 2012 was the worst-case scenario for Boston. Nothing went right, on or off the field, and it ultimately resulted in the team shipping off former fan favorite (FFF) Kevin Youkilis to Chicago, later Gonzalez, Crawford, and Beckett in a blockbuster salary dump to LA, and firing Bobby V (who they never should’ve hired in the first place.) They limped to a last place finish and the 2nd worst record in the AL. The Red Sox, clearly gun-shy and having learned a lesson about signing questionable megacontracts, spent the offseason signing questionable medium-sized contracts.
The offense should be a strength once again. Dustin Pedroia is great, David Ortiz refuses to age, Jacoby Ellsbury is hypothetically healthy, and Will Middlebrooks has superstar potential after a promising 2012. Victorino and Napoli are both solid, though their bats don’t play nearly as well at RF and 1B respectively as they did at CF and C, their former positions. Also, it’s very worrisome that Napoli has the same hip condition that killed Bo Jackson’s career, worrisome enough to turn his original 3 year, $39M contract into 1 year and $5M.
The pitching was the bigger problem last year, and I’m not sure how much it’s been fixed. Jon Lester probably isn’t as broken as he appeared last year and is a decent comeback candidate, but his K rate has been declining since 2009; he’s likely no longer elite. Clay Buchholz has been massively overrated since his 2.33 ERA in 2010, winner of the Esteban Loaiza Memorial Pitching Fluke of the Year Award. Felix Doubront has potential to be solid, but he’s no ace. I really don’t see how adding a 36 year old overrated Ryan Dempster turns a train wreck of a rotation in 2012 into anything resembling playoff-caliber. The bullpen, at least, is much better, with Hanrahan, Uehara, and a hopefully-healthy Bailey being a massive improvement over Vicente Padilla, Mark Melancon, and literally crazy person Alfredo Aceves. There’s nowhere to go but up from last year, but in my opinion, only to about .500 this year, which is still a big step forward.
Notable offseason additions: Jair Jurrjens? The O’s were a quiet team this offseason.
Notable losses: Mark Reynolds
Outlook: The O’s were the single biggest surprise in baseball last year, going 93-69 and capturing a Wild Card. They were also the flukiest fluke that ever fluked, and nowhere near as good as that record suggests. Their expected Pythagorean W-L, based on runs scored/allowed, was 82-80, 11 games worse than how they finished. Their record in 1-run games, which historically tends to normalize around .500 no matter how good or bad teams are, was 29-9. They lost 2 extra-inning games in the first week of the season, and then proceeded to go 16-0 in them the rest of the year. Almost every one of these stats is unprecedented or close to it. The 2012 Orioles were, simply put, the luckiest team of all time.
I’m not calling them a horrible team, though. Adam Jones and Chris Davis both took big steps forward last year. Matt Wieters is already very good and still has the potential to get better. Nick Markakis continues to be boringly productive. Megaprospect Manny Machado will get his first major opportunity to impress this year. It’s mostly the pitching side that contributed to their luck last year. Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Chris Tillman, I don’t buy for a second that this is a playoff rotation. Even more so the bullpen, which put up at least 5 sub-3.00 ERAs totally unsupported by peripherals last year.
Baltimore is legitimately a team on the rise, and I might take them seriously as soon as 2014, when Machado and fellow megaprospects Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman should start contributing. For this year, though, there’s a huge reality check coming for anyone who buys their 2012.
Predicted Final Standings
|Blue Jays (WC)||89||73|