FanIQ AL East Preview

Baseball's Toughest Division is Wide, Wide Open [FanIQ AL East Preview]

3/19/13 in MLB   |   Eric_   |   7716 respect

Blog Photo - FanIQ AL East PreviewFormally the playground of the Yankees and the Red Sox, the AL East has become a five team free-from-all. The change started in 2008 with the Rays' march towards contention, continued last year with the Orioles’ near miracle run, and appears to have taken another step forward with the Blue Jays’ aggressive moves. Helping out this changing of the guard was Boston’s collapse the last two seasons, as well as the Yankees getting old, injured, and shockingly, cheap. The result is an AL East where the preseason favorites do not reside in New York or Boston for the first time in ages. Toronto and Tampa looked primed for contention, no one is sure what the Yankees or Red Sox will be, and everyone is even less sure exactly how the Orioles will back up last season. Here in FanIQ’s official AL East preview, we’ll try and sort it out.
Once again note that teams are listed in predicted order of finish, and that all projected Opening Day lineups are from Bold indicates new acquisition. Italics indicate rookie.
Tampa Bay Rays
Projected Lineup
CF Desmond Jennings
SS Yunel Escobar
RF Ben Zobrist
3B Evan Longoria
LF Matt Joyce
DH Luke Scott
2B Kelly Johnson
1B James Loney
C Jose Molina
Projected Rotation
LHP David Price
RHP Jeremy Hellickson
LHP Matt Moore
RHP Alex Cobb
RHP Jeff Niemann
Closer: RHP Fernando Rodney
Key Losses: SP James Shields, P Wade Davis, CF BJ Upton, 1B Carlos Pena, INF Jeff Keppinger, RP Burke Badenhop
Every year despite possibly the fewest monetary resources in baseball, the Rays are in contention, winning 90 games last year and finishing a close third in the division. Once again, they’ve used small moves, and one big move, to keep them in the mix. The big move though was a short term subtraction, the trade of James Shields to the Royals. What softens the blow for Tampa is the rest of the rotation. David Price is the reigning Cy Young winner and one of the top pitchers in the game. Hellickson, meanwhile, backed up his rookie season with a 3.10 ERA even though he could stand to miss a few bats. The guy though that can really make Rays fans forget Shields is Matt Moore. His first full season was solid but not spectacular, with a perfectly average 100 ERA+. He still needs to cut down on the walks, but still only 23, he remains on the star track. The rotation is rounded out by Cobb, who at 24 also has room for improvement, and Niemann, who is probably overqualified to be a fifth starter. After that, the Rays have even more depth, from Chris Archer to Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery, both picked up in the Shields trade. Tampa gave up the least runs of any team in baseball last season, and with their embarrassment of riches, they can easily do so again.
If there was any one specific thing that kept Tampa out of the playoffs, it was the injuries to Evan Longoria that limited him to just 74 games. When he played, he was excellent, but he didn’t play enough and the rest of the lineup couldn’t compensate. A healthy Longoria would go a long way to boosting this lineup, as would a step forward by Desmond Jennings. The Rays remade their middle infield, hoping that 2012 was Yunel Escobar’s nadir at the plate and in not being a homophobe and that Kelly Johnson can stem his decline. The biggest problems though remain at first base and DH. Luke Scott had a 101 OPS+ last year, which doesn’t work at DH, while James Loney has gone from a guy who can’t hit for power to a guy who can’t hit at all. Wil Myers will help once Tampa is done manipulating his service time and call him up, but the offense was the weakness last year, and it wasn’t exactly solved in the winter.
Maybe it’s just because I love how the Rays run their team, flying in the face of the canard that you must have money to contend, but I’m going with them to take back the division crown. That rotation, a healthy Longoria, and a little Zorilla cure a lot of ills.
Projected Record: 91-71
Down on the Farm: Yes, their farm system is still loaded, thanks to the Royals in many ways. Myers is a top 10 prospect in the game, and will up once the Rays secure an extra year of club control. Archer and Odorizzi are also up there and will probably see some time in Tampa in 2013. RHP Taylor Guerrieri is their top prospect in the lower minors. Still just 20, he has ace potential.
Toronto Blue JaysBlog Photo - FanIQ AL East Preview
Projected Lineup
SS Jose Reyes
LF Melky Cabrera
RF Jose Bautista
1B Edwin Encarnacion
CF Colby Rasmus
3B Brett Lawrie
DH Adam Lind
C J.P. Arencibia
2B Emilio Bonifacio
Projected Rotation
RHP R.A. Dickey
RHP Brandon Morrow
LHP Mark Buehrle
RHP Josh Johnson
LHP Ricky Romero
Closer: RHP Casey Janssen
Key Losses: SS Yunel Escobar, C Travis d’Arnaud, SP Henderson Alvarez, 2B Kelly Johnson, RP Jason Frasor, RP Brandon Lyon, IF Omar Vizquel
Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos saw weakness in his division’s traditional powers and struck this offseason, taking advantage of the messes in Miami and Queens to acquire top talent. Starting with the lineup, the key acquisition was Jose Reyes from the Marlins. His .287/.347/.433 line last year felt disappointing, but was right in line with his career marks and is very good for a shortstop these days. If he stays healthy, he’ll be fine. Reyes is joined at the top of the lineup by Melky Cabrera. The combination of his PED suspension and a fluky BABIP the last two years means he’s due for a drop-off, the question is how much. There are question marks with the other major players as well. Bautista is a stud of course, but lost a good chunk of time with a wrist injury, which can sap power as guys come back from it. Brett Lawrie didn’t perform quite to expectations as a rookie, but still has a lot of talent and is a good bet to improve. The same can’t be said for Lind and Rasmus, who are quickly finding their past potential fading. Overall though this is a decent lineup at worst, and if Joey Bats is fully healthy, it will be more than that.
A rotation that struggled mightily has been completely remade due to the trades. The biggest name is R.A. Dickey, the reigning NL Cy Young winner. For Dickey, it’s not age that’s the concern, it’s consistency, an issue for any knuckleballer. The expectation is another year like last year, but something more akin to 2011 (3.28 ERA) is also very possible (and still very good). Buehrle and Johnson join the team from Miami. Buehrle has been good for over a decade now, and is almost guaranteed to give you 200+ innings again, but he doesn’t miss a lot of bats and can be homer prone, which could be an issue in the AL East. Johnson was a stud when healthy, but all his injuries might have taken a toll last year as his ERA jumped up to 3.81. Don’t get me wrong, these three are definitely a big upgrade, but there are concerns. Of the two incumbent pitchers, Brandon Morrow finally broke out last year with an ERA under 3, but missed time due to an oblique injury. If he’s healthy all year, he’s a sleeper Cy Young pick. Romero, on the other hand, was bad last year and is still not right this spring. That spot could end up JA Happ’s before long.
On paper, the Blue Jays won the offseason and fans have hope for their first playoff berth since the 1993 World Champions. That is very much in play, even though I’m a little wary it’s too much change too soon. However, if the new players are as good as advertised, Bautista makes it through the year, and Lawrie leaps forward, the sky could be the limit.
Projected Record: 89-73
Down on the Farm: Not surprisingly, the offseason trades thinned out most of the Jays’ farm system. The one guy they wouldn’t trade was SP Aaron Sanchez, and with good reason. Sanchez had a 2.49 ERA in a full year in the Midwest League in 2012. He still needs to cut down on walks, but at 20 years old with great stuff, there’s ace potential here. If you’re looking for someone to come up this year and make an impact, RP Marcus Stroman, one of their first round picks in 2012, is your guy.

It's weird not to see New York and Boston at the top of the division, isn't it? Find out why on the next page.

New York YankeesBlog Photo - FanIQ AL East Preview
Projected Lineup
RF Ichiro Suzuki
SS Derek Jeter
2B Robinson Cano
3B Kevin Youkilis
DH Travis Hafner
1B Juan Rivera
LF Brennan Boesch
CF Brett Gardner
C Chris Stewart
Projected Rotation
LHP CC Sabathia
RHP Hiroki Kuroda
LHP Andy Pettitte
RHP Phil Hughes
RHP Ivan Nova
Closer: RHP Mariano Rivera
Key Losses: OF Nick Swisher, RP Rafael Soriano, C Russell Martin, SP Freddy Garcia, 3B Eric Chavez, OF Andruw Jones, RP Derek Lowe
The financial goal for the Yankees is to get payroll under $189 million by next year. If they do so, they will not have to pay any luxury tax that year, and in the future will pay a lower rate. This goal showed in their offseason moves: no long-term deals and no big money deals. The problem with this strategy is it resulted in an aging, injured team with no depth. Alex Rodriguez is out at least half the year, and that’s assuming no action is taken on the Biogenesis scandal. Mark Teixeria is out the first weeks of the year (and rumored to be out longer) with a strained wrist, as is Curtis Granderson with a broken forearm. These injuries have left the Yankees scrambling, as shown by the fact that Brennan Boesch, signed last week, is in the projected starting lineup.
With the exception of Cano, every spot in the lineup at the moment has questions. Derek Jeter was great last season, but is now 38 and coming off the broken ankle suffered in the ALCS. Ichiro seemed to awaken in New York, but repeating it is unlikely at his age. Youkilis was brought in to replace A-Rod, but he has injury concerns of his own. Ditto Gardner, who could be a huge asset if he’s fully recovered from last year’s elbow injury. Ditto Hafner, who hasn’t been healthy in years and can only DH. However, the Yankees’ cheapness might most manifest itself at catcher, where they let Russell Martin walk to the Pirates of all teams. What’s left is either Chris Stewart (career OPS: .583) or Francisco Cervelli (career OPS: .692). Yes, the Yankees punted a position.
With the offense likely to struggle, at least until Granderson and Teixeria returns, it’s up to the pitching to carry the Yankees. They appear more likely to be up to the task. CC Sabathia is CC Sabathia, while Kuroda was a rare under-the-radar find for the Yankees. Andy Pettitte probably won’t have an ERA under 3 again, but can still be effective at 41. Of the younger set, Phil Hughes is an average pitcher who would be above average if he wasn’t such an extreme fly ball guy pitching in a launching pad, while the Yankees hope Ivan Nova is closer to his 2011 self this time around than his 2012 self. David Phelps will probably also make an appearance at some point, while Michael Pineda continues his recovery from shoulder surgery. Bullpen-wise, the Yankees lose Rafael Soriano, but get back Mariano Rivera for his final season. Even coming off a torn ACL and at 43, the assumption is that Rivera is still Rivera unless shown otherwise.
With the lineup in tatters, and the team as a whole resting on creaky, aging body parts, signs point to this being the year the Yankees collapse. However, this is still a team that won 95 games last year. The Yankees might have as big a range of potential wins as any other team in baseball. My prediction is somewhere in the middle of that range, but I truly have no idea, and neither does anyone else.
Projected Record: 83-79
Down on the Farm: The Yankees have some nice hitting talent, although the pitching side is a bit thin. Topping the list is C Gary Sanchez. Like Jesus Montero before, there’s little question he can hit, but lots of questions he can stay behind the plate. The good news he started to answer those questions last season. The bad news for Yankees fans is that he’s not close to ready for the majors and can’t help their current wasteland at catcher. A trio of outfield prospects, Tyler Austin, Mason Williams, and Slade Heathcott, are also worth watching.
Boston Red SoxBlog Photo - FanIQ AL East Preview
Projected Lineup
CF Jacoby Ellsbury
2B Dustin Pedroia
SS Stephen Drew
DH Mike Napoli
RF Shane Victorino
3B Will Middlebrooks
LF Jonny Gomes
1B Lyle Overbay
C Jarrod Saltalamacchia
(Note: This lineup assumes David Ortiz will miss the start of the season due to the recurrence of his Achilles injury.)
Projected Rotation
LHP Jon Lester
RHP Clay Buchholz
RHP Ryan Dempster
LHP Felix Doubront
RHP John Lackey
Closer: RHP Joel Hanrahan
Key Losses: OF Cody Ross, IF Mike Aviles, SP Aaron Cook, SP Daisuke Matsuzaka, RP Mark Melancon
Well, last year went well, didn’t it? After the disaster of 2012, Red Sox brass took a reasonable approach to the offseason, signing guys that can contribute for a team that isn’t allow to fully rebuild, but not committing to any big money deals. The exception was Victorino, who the team gave 3 years and $39 million to continue his decline phase. Napoli signed a similar deal, but it dropped to 1 year at $5 million due to a hip issue. Once Ortiz is healthy, Napoli will likely play mostly first base while possibly catching now and then (not likely though due to the signing of David Ross to timeshare with Salty). Speaking of Big Papi, he was great last year (he would’ve led the league in OPS had he qualified), but couldn’t stay healthy. It’s not a good sign that his Achilles are both bothering him again. Health is also a concern to various degrees on the rest of the major players in this lineup: Pedroia, Middlebrooks, and especially Ellsbury. Stephen Drew also is a question mark as he hasn’t looked right since his 2011 broken ankle (if he’s hurt, shortstop goes to all-glove Jose Iglesias). If everyone were healthy, then it’s not a bad lineup, but what are the odds of that?
Pitching of course was why last year was such a disaster for Boston. Of the returning starters, Buchholz had the lowest ERA with 4.56. Jon Lester looks the same, but his strike out rate keeps dropping and his ERA keeps rising. He probably won’t be as bad as last year, but he’s also probably not a top of the line starter anymore. Ryan Dempster was signed to a 2 year deal to stabilize things. It’s not without risk, because of the move to the AL East, and the fact he wasn’t very good once traded to Texas, but more or less he should do the job. Doubront can strike guys out, which is good, but walks too many guys in the process, which is bad. He’s still the closest thing this rotation has to potential. Who knows what Lackey will do. The bullpen was also terrible in 2012, and probably can’t get worse, even though new closer Hanrahan is a regression candidate due to being walk and homer prone.
Better because they can’t be worse is a good way to describe the 2013 Red Sox. The Gonzalez-Beckett trade cleared up a lot of resources, but the team has rightly decided not to use those resources until the time is right. While Boston could surprise, the time is probably not quite right.
Projected Record: 78-84
Down on the Farm: SS Xander Bogaerts had a break out year, hitting AA at age 19 and hitting well in limited time while showing he can stick at short. As such, he’s now a top 10 prospect in baseball.
OF Jackie Bradley, Jr. had an excellent pro debut in 2012, and the South Carolina product is on track to soon make that Victorino contract even worse than it already is, or make Ellsbury expendable given Bradley’s plus glove in center. Those two are the top guys in Boston’s rebuilding system. On the pitching side, SP Allen Webster came from the Dodgers in last year’s big trade, and has #2 starter potential.

Last year my Orioles had a season for the record books and the story books. What will they do for an encore? Find out what I think, but definitely not hope, on the next page.

Baltimore OriolesBlog Photo - FanIQ AL East Preview
Projected Lineup
2B Brian Roberts
RF Nick Markakis
CF Adam Jones
C Matt Wieters
1B Chris Davis
SS J.J. Hardy
LF Nate McLouth
3B Manny Machado
DH Wilson Betemit
Projected Rotation
RHP Jason Hammel
LHP Wei-Yin Chen
RHP Chris Tillman
RHP Miguel Gonzalez
RHP Jair Jurrjens
Closer: RHP Jim Johnson
Key Losses: 1B Mark Reynolds, DH Jim Thome, 2B Robert Andino, SP Joe Saunders, OF Endy Chavez
What do you for an encore after a magical season that no one thinks you can repeat? If you’re Orioles Executive Vice President Dan Duquette, you stand pat with almost the same roster that won 93 games and the Wild Card game. Almost no one outside of Baltimore thinks the Orioles can contend again. By run differential, they were really a .500 team last year, and their near unprecedented extra inning and one-run game records are almost certain not to be repeated. Those stats scream that 2012 was fluke, but it must be noted that the O’s went 48-29 in the second half with a run differential that indicates it was “real.” It was very much a different team late in the season.
As you can see, everyone in the projected lineup was an Oriole last season. Adam Jones is the key as he turned into a stud in 2012 (albeit one I wish would take a walk a little more). The offense as a whole has a good bit of power, returning two 30 homer guys and two 20 homer guys, but with the exception of Markakis, isn’t very patient, as shown in the ALDS. Brian Roberts used to be able to take a walk, but he hasn't been healthy in years, and even if he does play, it’s no guarantee he'll be anything but a shell of himself. At the infield corners, Chris Davis will try to be this year’s Mark Reynolds and not be completely useless defensively at first base while hitting home runs and striking out a lot, while Manny Machado looks to make more advances at the plate. He might not look it quite yet, but at 20, Machado still has superstar potential. Unfortunately, other than Machado and possibly Matt Wieters, this is not a lineup with room to grow as presently constructed.
Heading the rotation for now is Jason Hammel, who was a revelation after being traded to Baltimore and spiking his strikeout rate to a career high. If he can keep that up, and if his knee is finally healed, he’ll literally be the best Oriole starter since Mike Mussina. Chen also was new last year and was also a surprise, and looks to be an above average pitcher. Tillman, meanwhile, finally showed his #2 starter potential in the big leagues, although with a .221 BABIP last year, the concern is that he was just lucky. Miguel Gonzalez, meanwhile, is another Oriole who came out of nowhere and must prove 2012 wasn’t a fluke. Jurrjens was picked up after the Braves non-tendered him. If he remains as bad as he was in 2012, the O’s will trot out one of their ghost of prospects past in Zach Britton or Jake Arrieta. There aren’t any stars in this rotation, but it’s still much better than most recent Oriole rotation vintages, and help is on the way.
The strength of last season was the bullpen, which like the rest of the team, is mostly in tact from a year before. Jim Johnson isn’t your typical closer in that he doesn’t strike out a lot of guys, but his 95 mph sinker is good for inducing a lot of ground balls (except against Raul Ibanez in the ALDS *sigh*). The primary set-up man is Darren O’Day, who is the rare submariner who can get lefties out as well as righties. Pedro Strop is your flamethrower, who struggled down the stretch and has issues with free passes. Even failed starter Brian Matusz found his niche last season as a LOOGY. Realistically, the bullpen won’t be as lights out as in 2012, but the talent is there to at least get close to that level.

As you can see by the projected record, I’m siding with those that say the Orioles will regress. Too much went right last year for regression not to happen, as much as I don’t like that. However, what I do know is that last season created hope for long suffering Orioles fans, and that when things go wrong this year, Duquette will find cheap talent on the fly to patch the holes. Last year is something I and the rest of Birdland will never forget, and even if this year is a step back, being an Orioles fan finally doesn’t feel depressing.
Projected Record: 75-87
Down on the Farm: This is a very top heavy farm system, but what a top of the line it is. SP Dylan Bundy is the consensus top pitching prospect in the game. Still just 20, Bundy came out of high school as polished as any prep pitcher ever. He’ll likely start the year in AA, and could be in the bigs for good as early as 2014. SP Kevin Gausman, the fourth pick in last year’s draft, doesn’t quite have Bundy’s potential, but he does project as a #2 starter, and the LSU product could see Camden Yards at some point this year. IF Jonathan Schoop is the O’s best position player prospect now that Machado has graduated, and was last seen playing very well for the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic.
Those are my picks and predictions for the AL East? What are yours? Who will come out on top of what might be the hardest division to predict?
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3/20/13   |   huskerdoug2009   |   2795 respect

I do believe this is the year someone other than the Yanks/Red Sox have the chance to win this division.  My money is on the Orioles do to agreement with Steve on Rays losing Upton/Shields plus Longoria's inability lately to play full season.  Also R.A. Dickey I believe will not have the same season in Toronto as he did with Mets, although Blue Jays offense and fairly good starting pitching puts them in decent #2 spot. 

3/19/13   |   OneStepBeyond   |   36 respect

Good job on the detailed preview. This whole division is up for grabs, so many unanswered questions. I think you're being very generous on Tampa Bay. They lost a couple of big pieces in Shields and Upton, I can't see them being a 90 win team.