Friday, February 15, 2008

2008 AL East Preview

It's time to put the offseason of trades, signings and steroids behind us. For the 30 teams that comprise Major League Baseball, spring is already here, and the prospect of the run to the 2008 World Championship is alive. There'll still be personnel moves here and there, many to provide positional battles and competition amongst the players on various clubs. But we know now the general makeup of these teams, and it's time for me to roll out my annual previews and predictions for the year in MLB (well, at least for the only league that matters, the AL). Once again I'll begin this set of previews with the AL East, excluding the Red Sox. I'll hold off on my preview for them until just before they take off for Japan and begin the 2008 MLB season against Oakland on March 25.

BALTIMORE -- Manager, Dave Trembley
This is becoming one of the saddest refrains in baseball: The great fans of the Baltimore Orioles were subjected to a 90-loss season yet again in 2007. They sacked manager Sam Perlozzo not long after blowing that big league against the Sox on Mother's Day. He was replaced with Dave Trembley and the O's earned a respectable 40-53 record under his guidance the rest of the way. The performance ensured a return engagement for Trembley, but unfortunately for him new CEO Andy MacPhail staged an offseason firesale that also ensures the club's eleventh straight losing season in 2008.

This is not to say MacPhail's trades are bad for the franchise. They are just bad for this year. Baltimore finally shipped off the malcontented Miguel Tejada, sending him to Houston for five players, the most important being outfielder Luke Scott and starting pitchers Troy Patton and Matt Albers. As I described last week, MacPhail made the best trade of the winter in getting another five players for Erik Bedard, including Adam Jones, their center fielder for the foreseeable future, and lefty reliever George Sherrill, who'll be expected to win the vacant closer's job with Chris Ray possibly missing the whole year. There's still also a distinct possibility that star second baseman Brian Roberts could be sent to the Cubs for a package of talent, further solidifying the O's rebuilding project.

For the first time in many years the Orioles didn't make any stupid signings, many of which they are clearly regretting now since they're stuck with the albatross trio of Melvin Mora, Aubrey Huff and Ramon Hernandez. They will bring in veteran Steve Trachsel on a minor league deal to compete for a rotation spot, but otherwise their starters will potentially be the youngest unit in baseball. It's hard to say they have an ace right now, but their best starter will probably be Jeremy Guthrie, a pleasant surprise as a rookie last season. He managed only 7 wins in 26 starts due to poor luck and the overall crappyness of his team, but sported a 3.70 ERA and 123 Ks in 175 innings. Daniel Cabrera will get one more shot as a starter in 2008, but if he starts to show his 18-loss, 5.55 ERA-self again (not to mention his bad attitude that showed itself against Dustin Pedroia last season), the O's must look to either put him in the bullpen or find another team that will put up with him. There are few players in baseball I root harder against in this game than Daniel Cabrera. There's nothing like the combination of unmet potential with immaturity. He's like baseball's Ryan Leaf.

The thing O's fans should look forward to the most in 2008 is the immense talent in their outfield. Nick Markakis has emerged as the face of the Orioles, and if he can cut down his strikeouts he will be a statistical monster in addition to being outstanding in right field. If people don't know who he is already, they most certainly will by the end of this year. I spoke glowingly about Jones last week and I firmly believe he'll be one of the better complete players in the whole game before long. It will be a steep learning curve for Jones but if the O's fans embrace him and his young teammates, the tide could turn for the better and one of baseball's most storied franchises can once again be a force.

That said, the Orioles will in fact be flat-out awful this year. For once, though, O's fans can believe their club is heading in the right direction.

Prediction: 5th place.

NEW YORK -- Manager, Joe Girardi
An Italian ex-player named Joe will be running the Yankees for the 13th straight year. This time, though, that Joe's last name will be Girardi and not Torre. The former Joe finally got out after being insulted in contract negotiations with the new Yankees front office structure, led by the Boss' sons Hank and Hal. In comes the new Joe, the longtime pinstriper and 2006 NL Manager of the Year best known for abusing young pitchers in his lone season in Florida. With the makeup of this year's Bombers, this could be match made in hell.

There was brief drama when Alex Rodriguez opted out of his massive contract, only to find no takers and wind up signing an even more massive contract to stay with the Yankees through age 42. They also re-upped Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mo Rivera, and signed LaTroy Hawkins away from Colorado. Other than that, the same Yankees team will be coming back that finished 2nd for the first time since 1997 and played rather miserably against Cleveland in the ALDS. They danced with the Twins over Johan Santana, with Hank making almost daily idiotic statements to the media about his club's interest/non-interest. Instead, Brian Cashman prevailed with his commitment to the team's young troika of Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy.

Considering the age of Pettitte, the ineffectiveness of Mike Mussina, and the weakness/unreliability of Chein-Ming Wang (104 Ks in 199 IP last season), the Yankees have pinned their hopes in the 2008 season on the aforementioned trio of youth. Chamberlain is expected to start this coming season in the bullpen, and I believe the Yankees are making a humongous mistake in their desire to eventually move him off that role. At no level in Joba's life has he ever pitched more than 119 innings in one season, and given his injury history and Girardi's penchant for blowing out young arms, the future does not look bright for him. Hughes will probably have to shoulder most of the load and could be depended on as this team's #2. I'll believe that Kennedy is a solid major league pitcher when I see it. In short, there's a very good chance the Yankees could be in a lot of trouble with this rotation. They do have young reserves and will be able to make a deadline deal if need be.

Only the Tigers will be able to rival the firepower of this Yankees lineup. They aren't invincible, and it seems like it might be about time some of these guys showed their age. Both Bobby Abreu and Jason Giambi are in the final guaranteed years of their contracts, so expect to see them go all out. Hideki Matsui is battling some knee issues at the moment. There may not be enough ABs at the DH spot to go around considering the fragility/defensive ineptitude of many Yankees. Watch to see the continued rise of Robinson Cano as the league's best 2B.

Can you tell I'm not sold on the Yankees this year? It seems like the core of thus club is just a year older, and it remains to be seen if it can work with a rookie manager and a rotation filled with inexperience. The Red Sox are just better right now. Plain and simple.

Prediction: 2nd place.

TAMPA BAY -- Manager, Joe Maddon
In this space last year I called Tampa Bay's team just the "Rays" because I wasn't sure if they were dropping the "Devil" part. Well, this offseason it became official, and the Rays introduced all new uniforms that are straight out of AA. I guess that might be appropriate given the composition of this club, but I actually believe the Rays will be a fun team to watch in 2008 and may surprise some people.

I always believed that Delmon Young would flourish in Tampa Bay, and that he would be the one member of the Tampa outfield amalgamation that would never be dealt. I was proved dead wrong when the Rays pulled off the first major deal of the winter, sending Young, infielder Brendan Harris, and outfielder Jason Pridie to the Twins for Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and some other young players. As last season dragged on for the Rays it became more and more apparent that Young wasn't personally handling playing the big leagues very well. Hitting .288 with 13 homers and 93 RBI along with playing in all 162 games at the age of 22 was definitely impressive. But the Rays FO believed they were better off trading him and bringing in a young starter the caliber of Garza. There's another case of a frustrated young guy, with Garza venting much of last year about having to start the year in AAA. A change of scenery could benefit both of their careers, and they could still reach their respective potentials anyway.

GM Andrew Friedman signed veteran OF Cliff Floyd to bring some experience to this group. The suddenly rejuvenated Troy Percival was also brought in and will supplant Al Reyes as closer. Reyes and Dan Wheeler (acquired before the deadline last year for Ty Wigginton) will set up Percival when the season starts. While I don't really expect this to turn out particularly well, the Rays are very much better off with seasoned arms at the end of games instead of green kids like they've had for the balance of their 10 seasons in the AL East. This should also help the confidence of the young rotation as well. I can't say how many times I've watched the Rays bullpen blow leads in games against the Red Sox, and if you're Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Garza or any of the other Rays starters, you'd have to feel much better about the three or four run lead you've left after six innings. The best thing the Rays have going for them are the young starters set to go in 2008, with reinforcements like 2007 #1 overall pick David Price and other talents like Wade Davis, Jake McGee, Jeff Niemann, Andy Sonnanstine and a boatload of companions.

Last season provided breakout performances of Haverhill's Carlos Pena and infielder-turned CF B.J. Upton, and both figure to anchor the middle of Tampa's order in the future. Carl Crawford enters his final guaranteed year with Tampa, with two option years sitting on the table. I've always wondered what it would be like if Crawford played for a good team, and since he's never been on one, if provided the opportunity I don't see why he wouldn't bolt. I would not rule out a Crawford trade this year. Rocco Baldelli was once again injured for most of the year and he'll have to compete with Jonny Gomes and Floyd for ABs. Akinori Iwamura will shift from third base to second base this spring to make room for the great Evan Longoria, a top-five prospect for all of baseball and the early favorite for 2008 AL Rookie of the Year.

There's so much youth in this group, and I'm beginning to wonder if Joe Maddon is the right guy for them. This might be the year we find out if the Rays model of building entirely through the farm system is effective. Like I said before, these Rays won't be a pushover in 2008. Hopefully they can drum up enough interest to get people out to the Trop even when the Sox or Yanks aren't in town.

Prediction: 4th place.

TORONTO -- Manager, John Gibbons
It was a very odd season for the Blue Jays in 2007. They experienced a heavy rash of injuries similar to the '06 Red Sox, with Roy Halladay the only pitcher to start more than 30 games. They lost their expensive closer B.J. Ryan to TJ surgery, and both their corner infielders (Lyle Overbay and Troy Glaus) missed significant time. It was such a strange year that 39-year-old Matt Stairs belted 21 homers in 125 games and it appears the LF job is his to lose in spring training. GM J.P. Riccardi made a bunch of moves in the offseason, but it's increasingly apparent to me that the Jays are on the road to nowhere.

In a very surprising swap, the Jays sent Glaus to the Cardinals straight up for Scott Rolen. I'm intrigued to get to finally watch Rolen on a semi-regular basis, he was always one of those guys people talked about so glowingly as a player before injuries derailed him in recent years. By all accounts he can still provide excellent defense and if his chronically bad shoulder can hold up he could be good with the stick. It seemed like Toronto was set to go with the punchless defensive whiz John McDonald at short when they elected to sign David Eckstein, who's both punchless AND bad on defense. Remember that weird thing last winter when it looked like the Jays were going to sign Rod Barajas to be their everyday catcher and he reneged on an agreement at the last minute? Well, this winter they actually signed him. I guess these weird things happen when you have a team in Canada. I haven't even mentioned the strangest of all.

Vernon Wells literally disappeared for the entirety of 2007. It wasn't that he was injured, he just plain sucked. Wells slugged a sluggish .402 with 16 round-trippers in 149 games for the Jays last year. I haven't seen one pundit or expert explain what the hell happened to one of the game's best all-around talents. I guess that's what happens after you sign a $126 million extension.He's going to be 29 this year and the people in Toronto better hope like hell it was just an aberration, an anomaly for what should otherwise be an excellent career. The Jays lineup elsewhere is pretty solid, with Alex Rios emerging as a fantasy star and Aaron Hill settling in for a Mark Loretta-like career. Frank Thomas got his 500th home run last year, and since all 513 homers are steroid-free, he's a lock for Cooperstown and will continue to pad his stats this year at 40.

The biggest problem for the pitchers for the Jays last year was staying healthy. Halladay was again the workhorse and he'll be depended upon once again for that in 2008. A.J. Burnett missed a lot of time with shoulder issues last year and has made only 46 starts in two seasons with Toronto. He can opt out of his deal after this year, and even if he only makes 10 starts this year he's as good as gone. I'll be interested to see what kind of year Dustin McGowan has in 2008 after winning 12 games with a 4.08 ERA last year. He's an injury risk like seemingly everyone else on this team, but there's a lot of upside there. John Gibbons will round out his rotation with Shaun Marcum, who also won 12 games last season, and Jesse Litch. Watch the bullpen situation here as well; Ryan has said he's healthy and wants to break camp with the team but Jeremy Accardo performed well as the closer last season, so there are are no guarantees here.

I really don't feel like talking about these guys anymore. They annoy me. But you already knew that.

Prediction: 3rd place.

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