Division Preview: AL East

The AL East has been dominated by the Red Sox and Yankees for these last few years. I am not expecting this to change, but I am expecting some challenges from Tampa Bay and Toronto for the second place spot, and possibly AL Wild Card this season. This division will be closer between the second and third place teams than it was last season. The AL East is a star-studded division thanks to the bottomless pockets of the Yankees and Red Sox. Games between these two teams will be entertaining as usual and will be the only Fox Saturday baseball pairing we will see all season.

1. Boston Red Sox (2007 Record: 96-66 1st)

Boston is coming off of a World Series win last season. What I like about Boston is that they stick with what works and are not afraid to take a guy out of the lineup if he will not help them win a championship (ie. Coco Crisp in the 2007 post season). The Red Sox are adequate to excellent at every position with no glaring deficiencies. Perhaps the only controversy over the starting lineup will be regarding Coco Crisp at an outfield position. Reports have said that he will ask for a trade if he does not get the starting nod in center field. Besides this minor competition, the Sox look set to defend their crown. Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz are a great centerpiece for a high-scoring Boston offense. It is a given that they will continue to wreak havoc at the plate as they have done for a long time now. Ortiz is one of the great clutch hitters in the league and a true fan favorite. Along with these veterans such as the previous two and captain/catcher Jason Varitek, the Red Sox were pleasantly surprised by youngsters 2B Dustin Pedroia and OF Jacoby Ellsbury. Pedroia won a Rookie of the Year award after turning in a .317 batting average and consistent performances at second base. Not only did Pedroia show his great talents in the regular season, but he and Ellsbury showed veteran poise in the postseason as vital components of the championship effort. Also, Pedroia played the whole post season with a broken bone in his hand which showed his toughness. 3B Mike Lowell is still making a great name for himself after a 2007 season with a .324 batting average while showing good power with 21 homers. Lowell is also a former Gold Glove winner, adding to his value.

On the pitching side of things, the Sawx should expect another great performance from all of their pitchers. Ace Josh Beckett showed his meddle over the course of the 2007 season and some say he was robbed of the AL Cy Young that ultimately went to Indians pitcher C.C. Sabathia. Beckett went 20-7 with a 3.27 ERA and surpassed 200 innings pitched for the second consecutive season. He is starting off 2008 with an injury issue in his back that may prevent him from playing in Opening Day in Japan, but this does not seem to be reason longterm worry. Daisuke Matsuzaka may not be the superstar people predicted him to be, but the expectations for him and that ‘gyroball’ nonsense were unreasonable. The fact is, he eats up a lot of innings, showing great stamina, and put up an impressive 201 strikeouts over 204.2 innings pitched in 2007. Though is ERA was slightly higher than manager Terry Francona would like at 4.40, the powerful Red Sox offense can spot him a few runs every game as long as Dice-K is consistent like his debut in America. Also up this year is Clay Buchholz, who pitched a no-hitter in his second career start last season, and was then promptly sent back to the minors. Buchholz has been an exciting prospect and it will be interesting to see what he can do with a full MLB season. My boy Tim Wakefield will be floating knucklers to batters this season at the age of 41. Keep it dancing. The last starter is Jon Lester. Lester came off of cancer to put up some decent numbers in 2007 and will see an increased role this year. Curt Schilling will be out of action until the all-star break with rotator cuff and labrum issues in his pitching shoulder, so the younger pitchers will have to step up.

The Red Sox bullpen is very capable of getting the job done. Hideki Okajima is a tough lefty with a deceptive delivery that fooled batters all last season. A 2.22 ERA isn’t a bad way to start a career in America and I am expecting another great season from him. Okajima is the setup man for nutjob Jonathan Papelbon. This guy appears to have a major screw loose when he is out on the mound and I love it. Papelbon has great energy and is a commanding presence on the rubber. He saved 37 games last season and had a whopping 84 strikeouts over 58.1 innings pitched. Arguably the best closer in the game, any game with a Sox lead in the 9th is secure. My player to watch this year is Dustin Pedroia. Watch him play because he is a great young second baseman that we will be seeing a lot of for at least the next 10 years.

2. New York Yankees (2007 Record: 94-68 2nd)

The Yankees will finish second this season and most definitely compete for the wild card. Joe Girardi replaces longtime manager Joe Torre this season. I am still shocked that Torre is out of New York. The man was an institution and letting him go may have been a mistake. Great managers like Torre don’t come around every day. The Yankees are stacked every year but have lacked the team cohesion over the last few seasons to advance further into the playoffs. This may prove the theory that you cannot just throw money at a team and expect victories (though it doesn’t hurt). What makes them different from the Red Sox is the lack of team chemistry. The Yankees are mercenaries and often accommodate too many aging players looking for a last chance at a ring. The reins of the Yankees have been turned from George Steinbrenner to his sons Hank and Hal, who are probably just as unlikable as their father. The obvious strength of the Yankees lies on the left side of the infield with SS Derek Jeter and 3B Alex Rodriguez. A lot of people hate Jeter but I am guessing it is jealousy because he is one of the greatest shortstops of all time. This is not hyperbole, he has put up great numbers under the most grand spotlight in New York with owner/jackass George Steinbrenner breathing down his neck. His career .317 batting average, his outstanding glove, and his leadership and clutch in the playoffs have made him legendary. Also, the play he made against Oakland with that little flip was quite heads up. Can’t stop the hustle. Right next to Jeter is Alex Rodriguez. When it is all said and done, A-Rod may own the all-time home run record, and he will have done it the right way. A-Rod handled being moved to third base well and has gotten much better at it. These two guys may be hated in a lot of stadiums, but their abilities and accomplishments must be respected as they are future Cooperstown residents.

Second baseman Robinson Cano’s career is off to a great start. With a career average of .314, he is making his mark. A Silver Slugger winner in 2006, a repeat performance may not be out of the question. Jorge Posada still dons the catcher’s gear in New York as he has since I can remember. Posada batted a freak .338 this past season and continues to handle the pitching staff well. Melky Cabrera, Johnny Damon, and Bobby Abreu round out the outfield and Hideki Matsui looks to be the DH this year. On the pitching front, Chien-Mien Wang is officially good. Two straight seasons of 19 wins and sub 4.00 ERAs can be attributed to his sinker ball that induces plenty of ground balls. Andy “Snitch” Pettitte is back this season following the HGH scandal. He is still a good pitcher along with Phil Hughes who has been performing well this spring. It may be time for Mike Mussina to hang it up though. He stunk last season and he is not getting any younger. Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen will be setting up Mariano Rivera to close game this season. This is a great 8th-9th inning combo as Joba was the talk of the AL East last season. He may have only pitched 24 innings, but he had an ERA of .38. That would qualify as lights out. Rivera is declining, but is still a premier closer. At 38, he probably has a few more good years of service to the Yankees. My player to watch this year is Joba Chamberlain. Hopefully the Yankees will give him a little more time to pitch this season by taking him off of those overprotective mother rules. Maybe they will extend his curfew this year.

3. Tampa Bay Devil Rays (Record 2007: 66-96 5th)

I am predicting the Rays finish two positions better than last season. I originally had them finishing fourth, which was still an improvement, but after reviewing just how much talent this team has, they could very well finish third in this division. Though the Rays have been a stink franchise, they have an exciting, young nucleus of outfielders. Carl Crawford is a good contact hitter who batted .315 in 2007. Carl is perhaps the most dangerous base stealer in the game today. He swiped 50 in 2007 which tied him for the AL lead with Oriole Brian Roberts. For someone who is not a power hitter, he struck out way too much (112). If he reduces his strikeout totals, he will continue to make all star games. Center fielder B.J. Upton had a great 2007 season with an OBP of .386 and 24 homers. He has some speed on the base paths, and walked 65 times last year, displaying a good eye. At 23 years old, he is on his way to a great career. The final outfielder is RF Jonny Gomes. Gomes isn’t as special as the other two outfielders, but still contributes with a developing power bat. His low average and high strikeout totals are not very pretty, but he will get it done this year in Tampa Bay. 1B and Comeback Player of the Year, Carlos Pena returns to man first base after a 2007 season where he hit 46 home runs and batted .282. 2007 was the breakout season every team that ever signed him was waiting for Pena to have. Along with his good first base glove, expect another great year from this great player. Delmon Young departed Tampa Bay for Minnesota in exchange for Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and Eduardo Morlan. This makes an opening for super prospect 3B Eva(n) Longoria. Longoria is rated the number one prospect by Keith Law of espn.com.

“Evan Longoria is good at baseball.” -Keith Law

Good analysis Keith. But seriously, Longoria appears to be major league ready by scouts everywhere. His combined AA and AAA stats last season were .299 BA, 26 home runs, 95 RBI, and a lofty OBP of .402. I have not gotten to see this guy play yet so I am leaving his analysis to the experts. Law describes Longoria as David Wright. This Longoria has high expectations to meet, but at the age of 22, he has all the time in the world.
Tampa Bay has three very good starting pitchers in its rotation. Scott Kazmir, who is currently battling elbow issues is expected to make a spring training start soon, is the future of the Rays. He garnered a 3.48 ERA and a 13-9 record over 206.2 innings pitched last season at the age of 24. The most impressive stat of Kazmir’s in 2007 was his 239 strikeouts, an AL best.Kazmir throws his fastball in the mid 90s and his lefty slider is difficult for lefties to touch. James Shields put up similar numbers in 2007 striking out 184 batters in 215.0 innings pitched. This one-two combination of pitchers is perhaps the second best in the AL next to the Sabathia-Carmona combo in Cleveland. Look for these two young stars to put up comparable numbers again this season. Troy Percival is the closer in Tampa following a great comeback season in St. Louis where he held an ERA under 2.00 (1.80) in 40.0 innings of work.

This year, keep an eye out for Evan Longoria. If he is as good as his minor league numbers, the Rays could be in a position to climb out of the AL East cellar and possibly attract some fans.

4. Toronto Blue Jays (2007 Record: 83-79 3rd)

The Blue Jays finished the 2007 season over .500 as Canada appears to be taking baseball seriously. The Jays are led by a pitching staff composed of two ace-quality pitchers in Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett. Both are coming off of great years in 2007. Halladay is a former Cy Young winner and has been pitching like an all-star for the past few seasons. He racked up the wins (16) and contributed some respectable strikeout totals with 139 to match his 3.71 ERA. Burnett, who at times is overshadowed by Halladay at times, has been everything the Jays expected since acquiring the right hander. Another starter worth mentioning are Dustin McGowan, who with a 4.08 ERA struck out 144 batters while going 12-10. The final two starters at the time of this entry appear to be Shaun Marcum and Jesse Litsch, who are both young and have good upsides. The starting rotation is the strength of this ball club and will be a quintessential component of this Jays squad. Reliever Jeremy Accardo had a great year from the bullpen last season with a 2.14 ERA and an opponents’ batting average of .206. He will be setting up B.J. (haha) Ryan who has been closing for the Jays since 2006. Ryan missed the 2007 season following a mid season elbow injury which required Tommy John to repair. However, expect Ryan to return to his dominant ways as a closer in 2008. The fact he is left handed and his almost sidearm delivery make him tough to hit, especially for lefties. In 2006 he held batters to a measly .169 average.

The Jays acquired 3B Scott Rolen from the Cardinals, along with David Eckstein from St. Louis, and Marco Scutaro from the Athletics. It is too early to tell if Rolen for Troy Glaus is an upgrade, as both get injured a lot. Rolen does have an excellent glove though, winning multiple Gold Gloves in the NL. Glaus has more power these days, but the steroid allegations are ugly. OF Vernon Wells fell off big time in 2007, batting only .245, but outfield partner Alex Rios picked up the slack by batting .297 with 24 home runs. His home run totals have increased in each of his four major league seasons, and I am expecting this trend to continue. He has a great bat and is durable, playing in 161 games last season. Frank Thomas will be the designated hitter this season after batting .277 with 26 home runs last season. Thomas also contributed with a commendable on base percentage of .377. My player to watch this season is Vernon Wells. His batting average in 2007 dropped 58 points from his 2006 average of .303. He also hit only half of his home run total from 2006 (16). With an OBP of only .304, he needs to have a big year to get back to where he once was in his career.

5. Baltimore Orioles (2007 Record: 69-93 5th)

The Orioles are a joke of a franchise and Peter Angelos needs to hand this team over to someone competent. This was once a great franchise. It was not long ago when the Orioles were competing in the playoffs with the Yankees and Indians in some great series. But somewhere along the line, Angelos decided to stop fielding great teams. Trading ace Erik Bedard was not a good move. All Bedard did in 2007 was post a 3.16 ERA, go 13-5, and strike out 221 batters. Though they received Adam Jones (scroll down to #1), this was not a good deal. Bedard averaged 10.93 strikeouts per nine innings. They traded 10.93 K/9 for a guy who cannot keep his eyes open in pictures. Outside of all of the negativity towards the Orioles, there are some decent players on the team. Brian Roberts is a standout second baseman and Nick Markakis is showing that he is a very good outfielder. Markakis batted .300 and hit 23 home runs last year. He fell nine hits short of 200 while playing in 161 games. He is 24, and his first two major league seasons have been quite adequate. I am making Nick Markakis my player to watch this season. But unfortunately for Markakis, I am making the Orioles my team not to watch this year.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays

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