Saturday, March 14, 2009
MLB 2009 First Pitch Preview - AL East
Spring is in the air again, and that means it's time to get geared up for another year with America's pasttime. This will be a multi-part series on my predictions and analysis on each team in each division in Major League Baseball (** denotes Wild Card winner). The teams are listed in order from top to bottom of their respective divisions. I will also be churning out a full scale preview on my picks for all the awards, as well as predictions for each round of the playoffs.
I have also included a "Help Is On The Way" section to identify the top prospects for each club that could be making a big league impact soon.
And away we go...
AL East Champions- Tampa Bay Rays
What’s not to like about this team? I hear a lot of chatter from some other baseball writers about the “cooldown” or “letdown” year this team is susceptible to, but I’m just not buying into that idea. They have a bit of everything, each piece is talented, young, and hungry to keep changing the way people have historically thought about the franchise. The team is almost virtually unchanged from the squad that not only posted the first winning season in club history, but also won a very tough AL East division title, gutted out a 7-game ALCS win over a heavily favored Boston team defending a world championship for their first AL pennant before running out of gas against Philly in the World Series. The only changes made were to trade away 5th starter Edwin Jackson to make room in the rotation for über talented super-rookie David Price (a MAJOR upgrade) and filling their gaping hole at DH for the streaky yet big-swinging Pat “The Bat” Burrell. Their bullpen is very deep with talent, both righties and lefties, and the back end is pretty solid with Dan Wheeler and flamethrower Grant Balfour setting the table for veteran closer Troy Percival. Along with Price, Scott Kazmir, James Shields, and Matt Garza form a quite formidable starting rotation with perhaps the highest ceiling of potential in the major leagues. Their positional lineup features excellent defensive players while being consistent contributors at the plate as well. 2008 AL Rookie of Year Evan Longoria is poised to be a big time player for a long time, as are centerfielder B.J. Upton, and catcher Dioner Navarro. They have all the tools to not only win the division again this year, but compete for the crown for years to come.
HELP IS ON THE WAY: 2008 #1 overall draft pick Tim Beckham, a shortstop with legit 5-tool talent who probably won’t see the bigs for another couple years, but is already, at 19, more talented that current starter Jason Bartlett. His ceiling is comparable to a young, healthy Nomar Garciaparra.
New York Yankees**
My goodness. After missing the playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons, The Bronx Bombers decided to pull out all the stops to reload before moving into the new stadium. It’s been said before that “the Yankees don’t rebuild, they reload.” Never was that adage more true than this offseason when The Pinstripes went out and signed all 3 of the top available free agents on the market this winter. Facing the retirement of potential Hall of Famer and recent 20-game winning pitcher Mike Mussina, combined with the underdevelopment of former top pitching prospects Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes, the Yanks inked the top 2 pitchers available in 2007 Cy Young winner C.C. Sabathia and former All-Star starter A.J. Burnett for a combined $340+ million to shore up their thin starting rotation. With Jason Giambi and Bobby Abreu both departing via free agency, the Yankees solidified up their lineup with a $180 million deal for switch hitting, Gold Glove winning first baseman Mark Teixeira. It sure is expensive to miss the playoffs in New York…
After all that though, New York has what looks to be a pretty deep roster that is good enough to beat anybody on any given day. Their starting rotation of Sabathia, Burnett, two-time 19-game winner Chien-Ming Wang, lefty veteran Andy Pettitte, and young gun Joba Chamberlain is one of the most potent and versatile in the big leagues. Their lineup is deep and will certainly be among the highest scoring in the game, headlined by Teixeira, 3-time AL MVP Alex Rodriguez, 9-time All-Star and Captain Derek Jeter, and switch-hitting slugger, catcher Jorge Posada. The bullpen is also deep with future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera leading a group that includes lefty setup man Damaso Marte, full-season rookies Alfredo Aceves (R) and Phil Coke (L), promising youngster Mark Melancon (who many predict will be the heir to Rivera’s throne as closer), and the Bugs Bunny changeup of Edwar Ramirez. Defense won’t be this teams’ strong suit, and, because of that, they’ll give up a fair share of runs. However, the potency of the batting order (25-home run hitter Xavier Nady and .300 career hitter Robinson Cano will bat 7th & 8th respectively) will overcome more than a couple of runs against. They should narrowly edge out Boston and Texas for the AL Wild Card spot.
HELP IS ON THE WAY: The Yankees have a pretty sizable hole in center field as of now, but Austin Jackson is on his way to taking the full time gig from Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner, possibly as early as this summer. Jackson has been the Yank’s top prospect for the last few years and projects as a B.J. Upton-type player at the next level. For Yankee fans wondering what will happen when Jorge Posada ages too much to catch full time (which might have already happened), catching prospect Jesus Montero, who reminds many of Posada only more advanced for his age, is one of the best hitting prospects in all of baseball and is still only 19 years old. He may be major league ready enough for perhaps a late September call up, but is most likely a couple years away from seeing regular action.
Boston Red Sox
Red Sox Nation has a lot to cheer for right now. Their beloved BoSox ended their infamous title drought in dramatic fashion in 2004 and won it all again in 2007. The re-tooled Celtics are the defending NBA Champs. The Patriots, despite falling short of their perfect season dream in 2007 and suffering through a Brady-less season in ’08, have still banked 3 Lombardi Trophies this decade. The Bruins are looking like a strong favorite to hoist the Stanley Cup this June. But, this year’s Red Sox club will, I predict, bring the fans back into this stratosphere. Not that I don’t believe the team is good. They are. Unfortunately, with the Yankees re-upping the ante and the Rays loaded for the foreseeable future, there can only be two teams make the playoffs from the division. Make no mistake, this team will compete. Their lineup, despite losing Manny Ramirez, is still stout. 2008 AL MVP Dustin Pedroia and infield neighbor All-Star Kevin Youkilis can flat out rake. ’08 Deadline acquisition Jason Bay has the ability to perform a suitable job replacing Mr. Ramirez (that is, if anyone of the last half century can). JD Drew is, while still not deserving of his bloated contract, a very good major league hitter. David Ortiz is due for a bounce back year after struggling with some nagging injuries the past couple years, and regain his form as one of the most feared sluggers on the planet. Not to mention their pitching, which easily makes up for some of their offensive inadequacies (I’m looking at you, Mr. Varitek). Josh Beckett is still one of the premier aces in Major League Baseball, and Jon Lester has made “the leap” into the realm of All-Star-caliber starters. Japanese dynamo Daisuke Matsuzaka might be the best #3 starter around. Any team could do considerably worse than having newcomers John Smoltz and Brad Penny battling to earn the 5th spot in the rotation. The bullpen features a core group of youngsters that are the real deal. All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon is one of the most feared closers there is, Justin Masterson, while ultimately projecting as a top-middle rotation guy, is currently wreaking havoc out of the ‘pen, and Manny Delcarmen keeps getting better every year.
Unfortunately, unless youngsters like centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury and shortstop Jed Lowrie blow away expectations and take their games to the next level, the Sawks will fall short of the postseason and The Nation will spend their October cheering for the Celts, Bruins, and Pats.
HELP IS ON THE WAY: “Youk” had better keep that third baseman’s mitt handy. At some point very soon, Mike Lowell will no longer be able to man the hot corner. Luckily, when Youkilis moves back to 3rd, Big Papi won’t have to be left to fumble around at 1st. Big time slugger Lars Anderson is one of the heaviest hitters tearing up the minors, and Boston will be looking to bring him up to the big club soon to further bolster the lineup. Righty starter Michael Bowden will likely land in Fenway by mid-2009 as a spot starter/reliever, and has the potential to be a Kevin Millwood-type starter down the road.
Toronto Blue Jays
86 wins make for a halfway decent season for most clubs. Unfortunately for The Canuck Birds, it’s only good for a disappointing 4th place in the rugged American League East division. That must be sad for this club to work so hard (and field an above-average roster, by the way) only to continue with a playoff drought that dates back to their 1993 World Series win. That’s right, they haven’t even made the postseason since they won their last chip. Toronto has some nice pieces in place, too. Workhorse Roy Halladay is truly one of the elite starters in the game, and is the definition of an ace. For the last 5+ years, Halladay has been among the league leaders in innings pitched, complete games, ERA, and strikeouts. Roy is supported by one of the American League’s more sneaky-good bullpens featuring righty Jeremy Accardo and closer BJ Ryan. The Jays are one of the better defensive clubs in baseball, and with guys like All-Star outfielders Vernon Wells and Alex Rios, and veteran third baseman Scott Rolen, they can hit as well. The bad news is, unless one these first 3 clubs listed above suddenly change divisions, Toronto will be stuck in 4th looking up at the rest of the division for the foreseeable future.
HELP IS ON THE WAY: Help is coming very soon for this club with top hitting prospect Travis Snider slated to start the season up with the big club, and possibly taking over the full-time leftfield job as early as May. Snider has shown a propensity to strike out a bit at this level after a brief September call-up last year, but when he makes contact, he can absolutely crush the ball. With a kid who’s comparable to Jason Bay in terms of ability, it’ll only be a matter of time for this 20 year old to catch on.
Well, the good news is that there are some exciting young players on the roster. The bad news is that those youngsters have a lot to overcome in order to become a winning ball club. Put it this way: When arguably the best pitcher on your staff is overrated closer George Sherrill, you could obviously be fielding a better squad. The outfield of Nick Markakis, Adam “Don’t Call Me Pac-Man” Jones, and Felix “The Cat” Pie are as young and multi-talented as there is. All-Star second baseman Brian Roberts, despite his ties to the infamous Mitchell Report, is still a steady glove and consistent bat at the top of the order. Outside that, this team is, put nicely, awful. The pitching starved Rangers couldn’t wait to rid themselves of the atrocious Adam Eaton, yet the O’s have him penciled in as their #4 starter. Former dynamite Cubs prospect Rich Hill was given away for “A Player To Be Named Later”, and he’s the #2 man. Jeremy Guthrie is a #3 or #4 starter masquerading as an ace. Unless something drastic happens, this Orioles team will be bottom dwellers for a long, long time.
HELP IS ON THE WAY: Catcher Matt Wieters, Baltimore’s #5 overall draft pick in the first round of the 2007 MLB amateur draft, is poised to take over full-time backstop duties this year. After tearing up minor league pitching and going through the entire farm system in only 2 years, Wieters, who as a switch hitting catcher with some pop reminds some of a young Jason Varitek, should supplant veteran Gregg Zaun in the everyday lineup by May. He’s regarded by most scouts as the best pure hitting prospect in all of baseball.
Coming Soon: AL West...