Sunday, March 1, 2009

2009 AL East Preview

I've been putting this off for too long, so let's hop into my annual AL preview series. I will begin, as always, with the AL East, save the Red Sox, whom I'll wait to preview until the end of March.

BALTIMORE - Manager: Dave Tremblay
In Dave Tremblay's first full season at the helm in Baltimore, the O's finished with the exact same number of losses (93) they had earned in 2008. The rebuilding moves made by new team president Andy MacPhail promised an 11th-straight losing season for the once-proud franchise. I lauded all of MacPhail's choices last winter, but like many teams, the O's had a pretty quiet offseason this time around and I highly doubt Baltimore will make it out of the cellar in '09.

They landed 33-year-old Japanese hurler Koji Uehara on a two-year pact, and given the makeup of their current staff, he could become their ace. In separate deals, the Orioles took two out-of-options former prospects off the hands of the Chicago Cubs in Rich Hill and Felix Pie. They also brought in utility men Ty Wigginton and Ryan Freel, and signed their two best players, Nick Markakis and Brian Roberts, to long-term extensions.

Signing Pie will allow Tremblay to use righty-mashing Luke Scott at DH and sport one of the game's fastest outfields with Pie, Markakis and up-and-comer Adam Jones (and they don't lose much if Freel is healthy). With such a mediocre pitching staff, this outfield should help cut down on hits and runs and may result in a couple more wins.

Freel came from the Reds in a move that saw catcher Ramon Hernandez relocate to Cincinnati. This helps Baltimore on two fronts: it saves them significant money, and hastens the rise of top 2007 draft choice Matt Wieters. In his first minor league season, Wieters posted a 1.054 OPS with 27 dingers between Hi-A and AA. Scouts have been going ga-ga over Wieters for years now, and it looks like he'll get his shot at some point this spring. Wieters probably won't see the majors until late May in an effort to delay his arbitration clock. Until then, free agent signee Gregg Zaun will be behind the plate, and then will likely serve as Wieters' mentor thereafter. Just like everyone else, I'm excited to see what Wieters can accomplish at the Major League level.

But otherwise, O's fans have little to look forward to. When your ace, Jeremy Guthrie, only wins 10 games in '08, and your closer, George Sherrill, can only muster a season ERA of 4.73, that tells you all you need to know about the quality of the pitching staff. Look for MacPhail to unload the contracts of Aubrey Huff and Melvin Mora during the season. The bad economy will probably whack the Orioles pretty severely, but they have nowhere to go but up. Well, at least not this year.

PREDICTION: 5th place.

NEW YORK - Manager: Joe Girardi
So what was the Yankees' reaction to missing the playoffs for the first time in almost 15 years? Just spend almost a half billion dollars on free agents when every other MLB team is wondering where the hell their money went. With a new stadium opening in the Bronx, the Bombers made a huge splash to try and get back into the postseason once again. My reaction? Meh.

No doubt bringing in Mark Teixeira was an excellent move, easily the best personnel decision made by the Yankees' front office in a half dozen years. In Tex they get an easy-going superstar who will anchor first base for them for the next eight years. For CC Sabathia, the Yankees only outbid their nearest competitors by about $50 million and Sabathia would have been an idiot to turn it down. How he handles the spotlight and the level of expectations for being the highest-paid pitcher ever will determine his success. Oh, and that whole thing about him being a stunt-double for the Goodyear Blimp.

And A.J. Burnett? Well, it has potential to be the worst of all the Yankees' bad pitcher contracts over the years. Brad Penny is a far superior pitcher, in my opinion, and the Red Sox got him for $77 million less. I'm positive Penny will have a better year. Hell, I think Phil Hughes will have a better year, and be better over the course of Burnett's contract, wherever Hughes may pitch.

Before having Teixeira fall into their lap, the Yankees had traded peanuts to get Nick Swisher from the White Sox to play first base. (Don't ever try to tell me that wasn't the original plan. With all the outfielders they already had, and with Giambi gone, they would never have traded for Swisher if they thought they would get Teixeira. Don't tell me otherwise, because it's a lie). Andy Pettitte also returns for another go-round with Mike Mussina retiring and Chein-Ming Wang returning from his 2008 foot injury.

How anyone can say this Yankees' team will leapfrog Boston and Tampa to reclaim the division is preposterous. They might be the worst defensive team in baseball when this season is complete. Teixeira is the team's only above-average defender anywhere on the field. The Yankees might be completely screwed with Jorge Posada coming off major shoulder surgery, and if they find out in mid-March he can no longer catch, it will make the Yankee clusterfuck of DHs even wider. Derek Jeter has no business playing shortstop everyday in the Major Leagues anymore, but no one would ever tell him that. Johnny Damon can't play center anymore, Hideki Matsui can't play the field period, and Swisher, Melky Cabrera and Xavier Nady aren't anything special either. They may be forced to start Brett Gardner on occasion in center just to give the pitchers some kind of help.

I also love how everyone expects Joba Chamberlain to all the sudden step up and be an ace pitcher. Look, the guy's got amazing stuff. But for Joe Girardi to say the guy will make 30 starts this year is ludicrous. He has still never thrown more than 119 innings in one season since high school, so why would anyone think he's suddenly going to find good health now? And what about their bullpen? If Mariano Rivera goes down, who closes? Damaso Marte? Edwar Ramirez? Yikes. Then do they jerk Chamberlain back to the bullpen? Who knows.

All I'm saying is that the Yankees are far, FAR from a sure thing this time around. The pressure and expectations have never been higher as they move into New Yankee Stadium. But the Yankees have never learned, and it doesn't appear they every will learn, that teams have to be built and not bought. If they don't get back to the playoffs, Girardi's second season in New York could also be his last.

PREDICTION: 3rd place.

TAMPA BAY - Manager: Joe Maddon
In my preview last year, I wrote that I believed "the Rays will be a fun team to watch in 2008 and may surprise some people" while still picking them to come in 4th place. Well, I was right that they were fun team and that they'd surprise some people, but their rise to the AL East division crown and eventually the World Series was something I never could have predicted would come this fast. As defending AL Champs, the Rays have a target on their backs and the hangover from such a successful year has typically not been kind to teams of their ilk recently.

The Rays bring back essentially the same team in 2009 with a couple notable exceptions. Their biggest move was signing free agent slugger Pat Burrell to a modest two-year deal. He will serve as their primary DH and provide pop behind Carlos Pena, Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton. The Rays also dealt Edwin Jackson for outfielder Matt Joyce to shore up right field, and signed some relief help in Brian Shouse, Joe Nelson and Jason Isringhausen.

The young starting rotation for Tampa remains potentially either its greatest strength or biggest question mark. James Shields (the grandpa of the group at age 27) remains their most solid, dependable contributor no matter how undeserved the nickname "Big Game James" might still be. Former #1 overall pick David Price should be penciled in as their #5 starter, and could very well be their #1 starter when it's all said and done. In between those two will be the electric Scott Kazmir, the explosive Matt Garza, and the dependable Andy Sonnanstine. I feel like perhaps the Rays caught lightning in a bottle last year with how well all their young starters performed. It might be too much to ask to have so many young guys perform at that level once again. I would also assume Dan Wheeler will close if Troy Percival is hurt, but the Rays do have other quality options in J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour.

Tampa will continue to have one of the most dynamic offenses in the game. They are well-balanced with speedsters Akinori "Evil-mura" Iwamura and Carl Crawford atop the order, mashers Upton, Pena, Longoria and Burrell and solid contributors Joyce, Dioner Navarro, and 2008 team MVP Jason Bartlett rounding it out. They can literally do it all. Also, this team has no discernible weakness on defense, which helped propel them deep into last year's postseason.

What's even scarier about the Rays is what they have on the way. They got to the World Series the same year they made high school shortstop phenom Tim Beckham the #1 overall pick in the draft, and they have fireballers Jake McGee and Wade Davis banging on the doors of the Trop. The depth of their talent means this franchise is definitely here to stay.

Given the bad blood existing between the Red Sox and Rays (even though two principles, Coco Crisp and Jonny Gomes, are gone from the picture), and the intensity of last year's ALCS, I very much look forward to what 2009 will bring to their new rivalry. I'll be in attendance on my birthday when they play the second game of a three-game set to open Fenway Park. I also look forward to many years of great games between these two franchises. I have a feeling 2008 will not be the last time Boston and Tampa meet for the right to play in the World Series.

Like I mentioned above, however, I think the Red Sox will be better in 2009 as the young Rays deal with their success.

PREDICTION: 2nd place.

TORONTO - Manager: Cito Gaston
Because I hate the Blue Jays, and don't expect them to be any good this year, I'll keep this brief. The Jays did just about nothing in the offseason in improve themselves. They ought to trade Roy Halladay and Vernon Wells to rid themselves of payroll, but J.P Riccardi's head is so far up his own ass there's no way that will happen. I think Travis Snider will be a great power hitter, and should get a chance to grow at the Major League level. Otherwise, the high point of the Jays' season this year will probably come whenever they take the season series from the Red Sox, which they will inevitably do. 

PREDICTION: 4th place.

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