MLB Divisional Previews: AL East

This is the second installment in our series of MLB Divisional previews.  Teams are broken down into categories (“Contenders”, “Rebuilding” and “Stuck in the Middle”).  At the bottom is my predicted finish for the division.  See my “primer” article for any questions or clarification.

Contenders

Boston Red Sox

Why they could win the division: Depth

Other than Adrian Gonzalez and Jon Lester, there’s really no one that jumps out at you as “elite” in the lineup or rotation.  However, their depth is staggering, and it shows in their payroll.  The lineup is extremely talented 1-8 (the exception being catcher, though Jarrod Saltalamacchia could change that if he can rediscover the potential he showed in Atlanta) and the rotation is legitimately seven or eight deep.  Even the bullpen is loaded with power arms at the back.  The Sox clearly decided they were not going to let injuries derail their season again like they did last year.

Why they might not: Rotation performance

The rotation, while deep, has its questions past Lester.  Clay Buchholz had an excellent season, but his K rate continues to slip and his HR rate was insanely low last season (probably unsustainable).  John Lackey and Josh Beckett both struggled last season and have another year of mileage on their arms and Daisuke Matsuzaka continues to produce ugly numbers to go along with his tantalizing stuff.  Tim Wakefield is back for depth and youngster Michael Bowden could fill in if needed, but the rotation really isn’t at the elite level many would have you believe.

Game on: SS Jed Lowrie

If the Red Sox manage to find a reason to put this guy on the bench in favor of Marco Scutaro (he of the predictably bad contract), they will be kicking themselves by mid-season.  Lowrie has suffered through injuries the past few seasons, but finally showed late last year what he is capable of.  Don’t expect the home runs to keep coming at that rate, but he will be a doubles machine who hits around .300 with a good OBP.  If given 500 at-bats, he could easily be one of the best shortstops in the AL by the end of the season.

Does Jed Lowrie enter the upper echelon of AL shortstops this season?

Slipping: RP Jonathan Papelbon

This is a very interesting case to look at.  While Papelbon has clearly become overpriced through arbitration, he’s slipping the other direction performance wise.  His walk rate and home run rate both increased for a second straight season and his strand rate plummeted.  His fastball velocity was virtually the same as any other year, but the pitch was far less effective and he threw it far less than in past years.  However, despite all this, his zone and contact percentages (with the exception of Z-contact %) all trended in the right direction.  I think he’s due for another slip, but if he can figure some things out, he has the ability to rebound.

New York Yankees

Why they could win the division: Lineup

It doesn’t get any easier than breaking down the Yanks; great lineup, shaky rotation.  The lineup is talented and deep.  Some pieces are starting to show signs of age, but there are no easy outs here.  The only thing holding it back is the team’s stubbornness in moving guys up or down the lineup.  Brett Gardner, not Derek Jeter, needs to be hitting leadoff.  His speed and OBP would be extremely valuable in that spot.  The team also needs to make sure Robinson Cano is planted in the three hole.  He’s probably their best hitter at this point and needs to be in that spot, despite the presence of Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira.  He ended last year there and they would be smart to keep in that spot.

Why they might not: Rotation depth

Past CC Sabathia, there’s really no sure thing here.  Phil Hughes had a very nice season in his first as a full-time starter last year.  However, he pitched 71 more innings than the year before.  That type of jumps tends to have a detrimental effect on young pitchers.  AJ Burnett still possesses the stuff, but he lost all control of his curveball last year.  He really needs to rebound and provide a solid #3 here.  I actually liked what I saw from young Ivan Nova last year down the stretch.  He showed excellent poise and presence on the mound and has good stuff.  However, he’s probably more of a #5 at this point.  The real question is, does anyone really think the Yanks won’t go out and get a starter during the season if they need one?

On the way: C/DH Jesus Montero

He might not stick behind the plate, but his bat is good enough to play at first or DH.  He’s only 21, but he could see time in the majors sooner rather than later.  The power here is exceptional and the walk rate is good.  If he can get the K rate back to where it was at Double-A, I really think he will be ready for the show.  With Russell Martin already struggling with injuries, he could see a cup of tea early in the season.

Quantum Leap: LF Brett Gardner

What’s not to like here?  Great defense, excellent OBP, steals a ton of bases.  If you could build a leadoff man from scratch, this is what you would get.  He showed last season he could handle lefties (.373 OBP) and a full slate of games.  If he doesn’t hit at the top of the lineup this season, you have to question the Yankees motives.

Slipping: RP Rafael Soriano

The easy answer here would be one of the hitters (ARod, Jeter, Teixeira, Granderson), but I think it’s pretty clear to everyone that they have started to slip.  Soriano on the other hand was excellent last season and parlayed that success into a big contract with the Yanks.  The first red flag here is the drop in K rate (8.23 K/9 last season after 12.13 in ‘09).  He also experienced substantial luck with a .199 BABIP (batting average on balls in play).  Lastly, his FIP (fielder independent pitching) and xFIP were much higher than his ERA.  All of these point to a regression.  The last thing to remember is that this is a guy who has had serious arm problems in the past, missing nearly all of the ’04, ’05 and ’08 seasons.  This contract could come back to bite the Yanks.

Tampa Bay Rays

Why they could win the division: Rotation

This rotation, despite the departure of Matt Garza (a very shrewd move), could be excellent.  David Price, though he may experience a slight regression, is the definition of an ace.  James Shields and Jeff Niemann should provide a veteran presence.  I expect Shields to rebound to some degree, his peripheral stats are just too good not to, and if Niemann can simply cut his walks, he should be fine.  However, the real potential to make some progress is with the back of the rotation.  Wade Davis struggled early last season, but showed growth down the stretch.  He could make a similar jump to the one Price made last season.  And then there is Jeremy Hellickson.  He’s truly a pleasure to watch.  His stuff isn’t overpowering, but he gets the job done.  If there is one young pitcher I could see being successful right away at the major league level, it’s him.

Why they might not: Lineup

I’ve heard a lot of concerns about the bullpen because of the people the lost there, but I think that area will be fine if they can settle on a closer.  The real worry is the lineup.  The names all look good, but unfortunately it looks like a couple of guys who are well past their prime (Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon) and a bunch of guys who are not quite ready for prime time yet.  They will need at least one of the young guys other than Evan Longoria to really step up in the middle of the lineup or they could end up falling well behind the Yanks and Sox.

On the way: SP Matt Moore

He might be the best left-handed pitching prospect in the minors and no one knows who he is.  He absolutely blew away hitters last season at High-A (12.9 K/9) and showed improved control (BB/9 down from 5.1 to 3.8).  He should start at Double-A and could be in the majors by late summer.  Basically, he’s the reason they were so willing to give up Matt Garza.

Game on: SP Jeremy Hellickson

It’s rare that you find a right-handed starter without elite velocity who will have a ton of success at the major league level.  However, Hellickson has everything else you look for: control, command, movement, very good secondary offerings and excellent mound presence.  He paints the black with ease and really reminds me of a young Greg Maddux.  It’s rare that I expect this much from a young pitcher, but Hellickson has the makeup to succeed right away in Tampa.

Quantum Leap: 3B Evan Longoria

I know what you are thinking, “Hey idiot, Longoria has been elite for a few years now!”  Well I am sure most would agree with you.  But if I told you that Longoria has never hit 35 home runs, topped 100 RBI or hit .300, would you believe me?  Yes, he’s been a very good player, but his offensive output so far has not been that of an elite hitter.  However, he has been making incremental improvements.  His walk rate and K rate both improved for the second straight season.  His power output dropped, but he’s a doubles machine.  Eventually some of those doubles will start clearing the wall and we will see a 35 homer season.  And of course, the defense is sterling as always.  Be patient, he’s good now, but he will be great eventually.  He’s the type of player you want to hitch your wagon to with a long-term contract if you are a GM.

Evan Longoria is primed for a monster season.

Rebuilding

Toronto Blue Jays

What to like: Pitching depth

There a lot of good young starters here.  Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero made a ton of progress last season and should headline this rotation.  Brett Cecil, Brad Mills and Mark Rzepczynski could round out the rotation and they are all solid young pitchers with decent upside.  I’m not as high on Kyle Drabek as a lot of other people, be he’s still very good and should be in the rotation at some point this season (if not from the start).  Deck McGuire and Zach Stewart are also on the way and both are solid prospects.

Not so much: Slumping vets

Adam Lind, Aaron Hill and Yunel Escobar (acquired at the trade deadline) all had solid track records heading into last year and all of them really struggled.  However none of them are even thirty yet and all are a solid bet to bounce back.  Lind’s BABIP was low last year, so expect the average to rebound a bit.  However his walk rate and K rate both regressed, so he has some adjustments to make.  The team’s “swing for the fences” mentality could have been to blame.  Hill on the other hand looks to be the product of pure luck (or lack thereof).  His BABIP last year was criminally low (.196, MLB average is around .300).  Expect a big rebound.  Escobar’s BB and K rates were virtually identical to previous seasons, so expect a big rebound in his case as well.

On the way: 2B Brett Lawrie

Acquired from Milwaukee in the Shaun Marcum deal, Lawrie could be headed for a position switch.  His defense at second is in doubt and Toronto already has Hill there.  Third is a possibility, as is an outfield corner (he has the arm for both).  One thing that is not in doubt is his bat.  He just turned 21, but he’s got good gap power (which should develop into home run power), hits for a solid average and has good speed on the bases.  Expect him to start at Triple-A and be up sometime during the summer if he performs well.

Game on: OF Travis Snider

He’s struggled a bit in his first two extended looks at the Major League level, but he just turned 23.  With Jose Bautista moving to third, he should finally get an outfield corner to himself and a full season’s worth of at-bats.  People have quickly forgotten, but it was just two years ago that he was a top-10 prospect in all of baseball.  The power is real and 25-30 homers this season is not out of the question.  If he can improve his BB and K rates, he could be in for a real breakthrough.

Baltimore Orioles

What to like: Veteran additions

To turn around this franchise, they will need the young players to develop.  However, the Orioles were not doing those young guys any favors the last couple seasons by running out backups as starters at a few positions.  Vladimir Guerrero (DH), Derrek Lee (1B), Mark Reynolds (3B) and JJ Hardy (SS) aren’t going to take this team to the playoffs, but they will take some pressure off of the young players around them.  Expect some of the young hitters to take a leap this year with more offensive help on hand.

Not so much: Young player stagnation

There have been a lot of graduations to the big league roster, but few of them have turned the corner and become successful major leaguers.  Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis and a host of young pitchers have blown through the minors but stagnated once they got their shot.  However, there’s a lot of talent here and with the veteran additions, there is a solid shot that a few of these guys make that jump this season.

On the way: SP Zach Britton

He’s left-handed, he’s got solid control, he gets a lot of grounders and he strikes guys out at a good clip.  What’s not to like?  He might not be a legit ace, but he’s got the tools to be very good.  If he doesn’t break camp with the big club out of Spring Training, he should be up fairly soon.

Game on: SP Brian Matusz

He’s everything I said about Jeremy Hellickson above, but left-handed.  I think the perception is that he struggled last season, but he actually did a solid job in his rookie season in a very tough division.  His stuff isn’t going to overpower you, but his secondary pitches are very polished and he locates very well.  He’ll be the ace of this staff by mid-season.

Which happens first: Matusz bends the brim on his cap or wins a Cy Young?  I’m betting on the latter.

Quantum Leap: RF Nick Markakis

I’m going out on a limb here.  Everyone was all over this guy after his first three years.  Every expert had him ticketed for greatness.  Then, the last two seasons, he wilted under the pressure of being “the man”.  His power and plate discipline both regressed.  However, this season, with the help of the veterans listed above, I think he finally has that breakout season we were all waiting for.  I think his max is probably 25 homers, but his plate discipline and average should be pretty good and he’s a doubles machine.  Expect a .300/.380/.490 line.

Predicted Finish

  1. Boston Red Sox
  2. New York Yankees (Wild Card)
  3. Tampa Bay Rays
  4. Toronto Blue Jays
  5. Baltimore Orioles

Next up: NL Central

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2 Responses to MLB Divisional Previews: AL East

  1. Preston says:

    The Orioles are GOING to make the playoffs this year, ended the season with the 2nd best record in the MLB due to one change…Buck Showalter

  2. redk584 says:

    They could very well leapfrog the Jays, and maybe even the Rays, but they need more of the young players to develop before they jump into the group with the Yanks and Sox. Guys like Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman, Adam Jones and Matt Wieters need to turn pedigree and potential into production. This is easily the hardest division in baseball.

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