The team previews posted here have been terrific, but I'm sure you noticed something missing. Yup - not enough Yankees and Red Sox. I decided to step in and fix that.
(Joke! No kill i. Alan is making me do this. He and Man Mountain will be covering the rest of the AL, and they're hiding behind a woman's skirts and making me go first.)
The AL East may be the toughest division in baseball this year, with three teams that have a legitimate shot at winning the World Series. In order of last year's standings...
The Tampa Bay Rays
The perennial doormat Rays were rumored to be cursed, because years of top draft picks yielded few results. Their promising young prospects ended up getting injured, becoming crackheads, or both. Some blamed the fact that the Trop is built on three African-American cemeteries. Others blamed their "Satanic" name.
Perhaps the latter theory was correct, because they changed their name from the Devil Rays to the Rays, and ended up going from worst to first in a year (and making a fool out of me). That team is pretty much intact this year, and there's no reason they can't repeat.
Former Red Ray Olmedo will be starting the season in Triple-A Durham. Australian relief pitcher Grant Balfour, at one point picked off the Reds trash heap, pitched surprisingly well last year and got himself a $1.4 million contract this year. (Balfour may have the most unfortunate name for a pitcher outside of Homer Bailey.)
They lost Jonny Gomes, who declared free agency and signed with the Reds. The Reds cut him at the end of spring training, leaving him a free agent again.
The Boston Red Sox
Jonathan Papelbon, via BubbaFan's Picasa Web Album
The Red Sox are the beast of the east these days. They didn't spend big bucks in the off-season, signing Brad Penny and John Smoltz rather than the pricey players the Yanks signed. They did make a run at Teixeira, but he preferred New York.
It doesn't matter. The Sox are so deep in talent it's not even funny. They've got a deep farm system and deep pockets. They sent Clay Buchholz down to AAA, fer crissakes. They'll miss Manny Ramirez, and Big Papi may be past his prime, but they're still my pick to win the division.
They lost former Reds Sean Casey and David Ross to free agency. Casey retired, Ross is now a Brave.
The New York Yankees
The stadium is new, but I expect much will remain the same in the Bronx. Monument Park, the Bleacher Creatures chanting "Box Seats Suck," the never-ending A-Rod circus...and lots of balls "driven" Pastadiving Jeter.
Last spring, Slyde expressed some doubts about the intelligence of Yankees fans, when I said they were worried about the lineup. But as it turns out...they were right to worry. The Yankees had been either #1 or #2 in runs scored for years. Last year, they dropped to #10, and missed the playoffs for the first time in fifteen years.
The Yankees still have a ridiculous number of All-Stars, but despite parting ways with Jason Giambi, Mike Mussina, and Bobby Abreu, they also have a ridiculous number of players who are past their sell-by date. Jorge Posada is 37, ancient for a catcher, and recovering from the second shoulder surgery of his career. Hideki Matsui is recovering from knee surgery and can barely run any more. The increasingly fragile Johnny Damon can no longer handle center field. Whether Alex Rodriguez will be the same after returning from hip surgery is an open question; whether he is or not, the Yankees are on the hook for nine more years, until A-Rod is 41 years old. And of course, there's Jeter, geriatric for a shortstop, and seemingly in denial about the decline in his skills.
While other teams counted their pennies in the face of the deteriorating economic climate, the Yankees spent up a storm, acquiring marquee names AJ Burnett, CC Sabathia, and Mark Teixeira. Youngsters Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy have been relegated to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and Joba Chamberlain moved from the pen to the fifth starter role.
Was spending all that money an overreaction to missing the postseason last year? Perhaps. But it was also that they didn't see anything they liked in next year's free agent class. And then there's the new stadium. All those pricey new seats and suites will be hard to sell if the Yankees don't win, and there could also be a backlash from taxpayers. A rebuilding year is simply out of the question.
But is it enough? My guess is no. But then, the Yanks may not be done shopping yet. If young Brett Gardner, who took away Melky Cabrera's job, doesn't work out in center field, or not-so-young Cody Ransom can't hold down 3B in A-Rod's absence, Cashman will likely make another deal.
Chien-Ming Wang, once the Yankees' ace, may not be a Yankee for much longer. A groundball pitcher is not a good combination with "Pastadiving" Jeter.
The Yankees lost former Red Chad Moeller. Weirdly, they've traded for Chris Stewart - the catcher they sent down in favor of Moeller last year. I'm surprised they don't go after Paul Bako, who would probably be more useful than Stewart.
Toronto Blue Jays
The Jays aren't a bad team. They've had winning seasons three years in a row. Their 86-76 record last year would have been enough to win the NL West.
Unfortunately, they play in the AL East, where they face not only the Sox and Yankees, but the upstart Rays. The Jays won't contend this year. They may not even have a winning season, after losing 3/5 of their starting rotation, including AJ Burnett to the Yankees. (Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum are out due to injury.)
The Jays cut back on their spending plans this year due to the economy, and are giving their kids a shot. Among them, their 2005 first round draft pick, Ricky Romero, a dark horse who was thrilled to hear he'd made the big league roster.
Former Red Buck Coats has been outrighted to the minors.
Dirk Hayhurst, famed for his Non-Prospect Diary, is in the Jays minor league system now, having escaped the Padres via six-year free agency.
Toronto is the only AL East team that the Reds play this season. The series is June 23-25 in Toronto. (And none of the Reds games is among the "dry" ones.)
One of these days I'd like to go to a Jays game in Toronto, and stay in that hotel at the ballpark that overlooks the field.
A lot of the experts are predicting the Jays will be the cellar-dwellers this year, but my pick for that "honor" is the Orioles. They've been oddly schizophrenic in the Hot Stove season. They can't seem to decide whether to blow up the team or try to contend. There was talk about trading Brian Roberts and going into a rebuilding phase; instead, they signed Roberts to a four-year, $40 million contract, and offered Mark Teixeira more money than the Yankees did.
In the end, they did little to improve their team. (They did sign Japanese pitcher Koji Uehara, but who knows how that will work out.) Their string of 11 straight losing seasons probably won't be broken this year.
Koji Uehara and Matt Wieters, via bthesite.com
Probably of most interest is whether they'll call up top prospect Matt Wieters. (They'll likely wait until April or May at least, for clock reasons.)
Former Red Ryan Freel is with the Orioles this year, as part of the trade that brought Ramon Hernandez to Cincinnati. Chad Moeller has the backup catcher's role, at least until Wieters is called up. Jolbert Cabrera is insurance, playing for the Triple-A Norfolk Tides. They lost Juan Castro to the Dodgers.
My guess for the season-end standings:
The Sox, Yankees, or Rays could win this division. It will probably come down to luck, particularly with injuries. Which is why I give the Sox the edge. With their depth, they should be well-suited to deal with injuries. Tampa has a relatively young team, and while they may not be as lucky in the injury department as they were last year, they probably have the advantage over the creaky Yankees. Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi thinks drug testing means baseball will get younger - that players will no longer be able to play into their late thirties and early forties. If so, the Yanks are in trouble.