Monday, February 15, 2010

2010 AL East Preview

Just like that, it's almost time.

After a winter of down contracts (and many Scott Boras clients still looking for jobs), players, managers, coaches and fans are packing their vehicles and making that annual trek to Florida or Arizona to begin a new season.

With that comes my annual AL preview. I start, as always, with the AL East sans Boston, who I'll preview in depth just before the regular season commences.

BALTIMORE - Manager: Dave Tremblay
Another year, another miserable season to be a Orioles fan. Baltimore rounded out the decade with its 12th consecutive losing season, losing 98 games, finishing dead-last in AL ERA, hits, runs and homers while striking out more than any AL offense. Lots of rookies were broken in, while several veterans played out the string or were eventually traded.

It's been a difficult start for O's GM Andy MacPhail, but based on some excellent rebuilding moves the last few years, and a couple prime moves this winter, perhaps the worst days for Baltimore are in the past. MacPhail signed Garrett Atkins and Miguel Tejada to one-year contracts totaling $10 million to shore up the corner infield spots. He also traded overrated closer Chris Ray to the Rangers for Kevin Millwood, and signed Mike Gonzalez to be the new ninth inning fireman.

MacPhail was able to make these moves while actually keeping the club's payroll in the $80 million range, roughly that same as it was in '09. That's at least partially because the team's going to rely on plenty of young, cheap talent, many of whom got their feet wet during the '09 campaign.

It all begins with Matt Wieters, the catcher with a power bat who showed plenty of potential after making his big league debut last May. The kid gloves come off this year for Wieters, giving him ample opportunity to grow into a star at age 24. Young outfield guns Adam Jones and Nolan Reimold are set to be firmly entrenched in center and left field, respectively, for years to come. Jones and Reimold combined for only 223 games last year due to injury, so expect them to fill out one baseball's best young outfields alongside super-duper star Nick Markakis.

The starting rotation behind Millwood and Jeremy Guthrie will be three kids with miles of upside. Brad Bergesen, 24, was rather impressive in 19 starts with the O's last season, sporting a 3.43 ERA and 1.28 WHIP in 123 innings. He should be joined by 23-year-old Brian Matusz and 21-year-old Chris Tillman, both terrific pitching prospects Baltimore's been so lacking the last decade or so.

The Orioles should actually be fun to watch this year, especially if the kids round into form. After I spent much of last fall watching "The Wire," the city of Baltimore has a soft spot in my heart. As if things weren't crappy enough in that city, they've had to be subjected to such crappy baseball too. Here's hoping the new decade is kinder to Baltimore, both on the field and off.

Prediction: 4th place.

NEW YORK - Manager: Joe Girardi
Everything that could have gone right for the Yankees last year went right. They had the perfect team for their new wiffle ball stadium, combining power hitting with power pitching, harnessing one of the best offenses in recent baseball history while winning in the playoffs with just three starters and a manager who often seemed over-matched.

GM Brian Cashman responded to winning the '09 World Series with a strong but curious offseason. (I realize I just inadvertently made an Altoids reference. Let's move on.) He solidified their rotation by dealing away Melky Cabrera for strikeout machine Javier Vazquez, and replaced Cabrera with Curtis Granderson in a three-team deal that saw Phil Coke and Austin Jackson wave goodbye. He also signed Nick Johnson to be the club's primary DH, and brought in Randy Winn to shore up the outfield.

But Cashman held firm to a seemingly arbitrary $200 million payroll limit and refused to give Johnny Damon, a proven commodity and fan favorite, anything close to his asking price. Sure, the initial asking price (three years, $39 million) was insane, but the Yankees could have made more of a serious effort to keep him. His swing is tailor-made for Yankee Stadium. The Yankees knew this, but still shooed Damon out the door like some kind of rodent.

While I think most Yankee fans realized World Series MVP Hideki Matsui wasn't coming back, the way the Damon negotiations went down upset millions who saw Damon as the consummate pro and someone who helped change the clubhouse culture. Now he's going to be replaced by a Winn/Brett Gardner platoon? With all the Red Sox potential issues on offense, they don't have to worry about anything like a Winn/Gardner platoon, not even mentioning how abhorrently awful Granderson is against lefties (.484 OPS last year, and that's not a typo). They should have worked something out with Damon and left Johnson to his own devices. The Yankees will be weaker as a result.

Having said all that, the Yankees are still a juggernaut. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera are both entering contract years, Alex Rodriguez is finally comfortable, and Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett are the new generation of Yankees heroes. There are some questions about outfield defense, rotation depth, and of course the annual "What the Hell are We Going to Do With Joba?" debate.

While I can't pick them to win the division solely based on the Red Sox-shaped helices in my DNA, the Yankees are definitely going to the playoffs, and will definitely be one of the three best teams in baseball this year. Now pardon me while I puke my guts out.

Prediction: 2nd place.

TAMPA BAY - Manger: Joe Maddon
A year after making it to the Fall Classic, the Rays took a step back, winning just 84 games while experiencing inconsistency and injury throughout the year. It wasn't hard to see this coming, what with the luck the '08 Rays had with their young pitching staff. If the Rays don't get off to a hot start in '10, some of their big pieces could be shipped away.

Let's start with the positives: the Rays finally got their hands on a bona fide closer in flamethrower Rafael Soriano, who was offered arbitration by the Braves and incredulously accepted it even though they'd already signed Billy Wagner. GM Andrew Friedman took advantage, sending peanuts to the hamstrung Braves for Soriano. The move allows J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler to fall back into their more natural roles as setup men. The Rays had a whopping nine relievers earn saves in '09.

Friedman dealt away Akinori Iwamura after Ben Zobrist claimed second base for himself in '09. Zobrist had one of the most unexpected breakout seasons in recent memory, posting a ridiculous .948 OPS and playing Gold Glove-caliber defense at both second base and center field. Kelly Shoppach was brought in to compete with Dioner Navarro for the starting catching gig.

Otherwise, it was a relatively quiet offseason for Tampa, as they've experienced a significant money crunch. They will still have one of the finest young rotations in the game, with James Shields and Matt Garza leading the way in front of Jeff Niemann, David Price and Wade Davis. With another year under their belts, they could be poised to put together another season like '08.

They need Pat Burrell to prove he's not washed up, and B.J. Upton to play up to his capabilities. Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena are in walk years, and they could be deadline bait unless the Rays are leading the pack. Of course, they've still got Evan Longoria, a true superstar and one of the game's best all-round players.

I don't think Tampa's got enough to crack the postseason this year. It would be sad to see them go into seller mode just two years removed from a World Series berth, so hopefully they won't fall too far behind during the year.

Prediction: 3rd place.

TORONTO - Manager: Cito Gaston
Rejoice, Jays fans! You're finally out from under the terrible wrath of J.P. Ricciardi! Now all you have to do is go through years of rebuilding and you'll be fine!

OK, maybe things aren't so rosy for the Jays, but with Ricciardi finally out of the picture, and Alex Anthopoulos clearly wanting a fresh start, at least Toronto is headed on the right path. Anthopoulos finally consummated a deal for Roy Halladay, bringing in prospects Kyle Drabek, third baseman Brett Wallace and catcher Travis D'Arnaud for their pending free agent ace.

It's going to be odd watching the Jays without Halladay. For so many years, he was their identity. If your club had a series with the Jays coming up, you probably felt good, but you needed to know if Halladay was going to make an appearance. Hopefully you'd win the other two and take the series that way. Without Halladay, nothing about this team is scary. Or interesting.

Aaron Hill smashed 36 bombs last year and is no doubt one of the best second basemen going right now. Adam Lind added 35 homers of his own, and Travis Snider should be developing some more pop this time around. Otherwise, the only thing really of note about the Jays' offense is this number: 107. That's how many millions of dollars they still owe Vernon Wells, who's sporting a .743 OPS since signing his mega-extension in December '06.

On the pitching front, their rotation is highlighted by underachievers with unpronounceable Polish names. In the bullpen, the savage battle for the closer spot between titans Kevin Gregg and Jason Frasor is about to ensue.

So fear not, Jays fans. You're only a decade away from relevance.

Prediction: 5th place.

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