Thursday, January 24, 2013
Anyone can win the AL East
By Jim Bowden
With Rivera and Pettitte back, the Yanks can contend. But so can everone else in the AL East.
During my entire 15-year career in baseball as a GM and through today, commissioner Bud Selig has emphasized improving the game’s competitive balance.
He said his goal was for all 30 clubs’ fan bases to have “hope and faith” on Opening Day that their team would be able to contend for a postseason berth. However, full parity has eluded one division for more than a decade. The American League East stood as an example of how wide the chasm can be between winning and losing teams.
Case in point: The New York Yankees have finished in first or second place in the AL East 12 of the past 13 years, with a third-place finish in 2008. Likewise, the Boston Red Sox have finished first or second in nine of those same 13 years, while the rest of the division could only look on and wonder when it would be their time.
The 2013 season, however, is the first year when all five teams in the AL East legitimately can contend for the division title, or at the very least a wild-card berth.
Here is a quick breakdown of the AL East and how suddenly in just one offseason, this division arguably has as much competitive balance as any division or conference in professional sports.
And consider whom they won’t have. Nick Swisher departed for the Indians and a four-year, $56 million deal, leaving the Yankees short 20 homers and 80 RBIs in right field. The Yankees’ corner outfielders will be Ichiro in right, who hasn’t hit more than nine home runs in a season since 2009, and Brett Gardner in left field, and he's never hit more than seven. Speed and defense can work, but it will mean occasional power outages for the Yankees' lineup.
Also gone is catcher Russell Martin, who left for the Pittsburgh Pirates and a two-year deal worth $17 million. He took with him 21 homers, his game calling and late-season clutch hits. So the Yankees don’t know who their starting catcher will be.
They also have little help in the upper levels of their farm system and very little depth at the major league level. As the plight of Alex Rodriguez illustrates (he will be sidelined until at least the All-Star break because of hip surgery), this is not a team that will be able to weather injuries well.
Don’t get me wrong: This still is a contending team that will be in the race, but also a team that could easily become the Los Angeles Lakers of baseball and be one of the most disappointing Yankees teams in recent memory. With no-trade clauses, age and few options, there is very little margin for error. General manager Brian Cashman doesn’t have a lot of flexibility to improve the club via trade if things go south.
One of the biggest surprises last season was the Orioles, who went from 93 losses in 2011 to 93 wins in 2012. The nucleus of the team is reaching its prime, including Adam Jones (27), Nick Markakis (29) and Matt Wieters (26). Wieters is one of the game's best overall catchers, and his leadership is improving. They also boast Manny Machado, one of the best young players in baseball and a two-way impact player. The Orioles also are one of league’s best, yet most underappreciated, defensive teams.
As a result, Orioles owner Peter Angelos did something he’s never done: He created stability within his team’s leadership, signing both general manager Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter to long-term deals through 2018. This bodes well for the Orioles’ long-term future.
They’ve had a relatively quiet offseason. Fans were hoping the Orioles would add pieces, but that inactivity is deceiving. The team committed close to $20 million to their arbitration-eligible players, and retained Duquette and Showalter.
In right-hander Dylan Bundy, they have a developing ace who could have an impact on the Orioles this season. The bullpen is deep and strong and should be able to repeat its dominance, but the starting rotation cannot be expected to win as many one-run games as it did last season.
Key to success: Starting rotation must be consistent during entire season
Can win division: If Bundy and Machado make a big impact
Because of their limited budget, the Rays lose impact players year after year. They also excel at replacing them because of their fertile farm system, and replenish that system with shrewd and calculated drafting. This season they traded James Shields and lost B.J. Upton to free agency, leaving some major question marks.
If uber-prospect Wil Myers is ready to have an impact in the middle of the lineup, he can give Evan Longoria some protection and replace the power lost by Upton’s departure. If table-setting center fielder Desmond Jennings has a breakout season, this team should score enough runs to compete.
Key to success:Matt Moore must become an ace and replace the consistent starts lost in the Shields trade.
Can win division: If some combination of Jeff Niemann, Alex Cobb and Chris Archer are effective in the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation.
On paper, this is the best team in the AL East. But there are a lot of expectations after GM Alex Anthopoulos pulled off a huge trade, netting Jose Reyes and Josh Johnson from the Marlins, among others.
They will add to youngsters Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus, who finally could have breakout seasons, and Jose Bautista, who will be an MVP candidate and a key to their pennant race. But they aren’t without questions. You can’t expect Edwin Encarnacion to hit 40 homers again, but will 25 to 30 be possible? And Reyes is always a health concern.
Key to success:Ricky Romero and Johnson bounce back and have seasons expected of top-of-the-rotation pitchers.
Can win division: If team chemistry is established early and the five-man rotation lives up to its potential.
Boston Red Sox
This is perhaps the most improved clubhouse culture in baseball. That alone gives the Red Sox an edge over what they trotted out last year. General manager Ben Cherington also had a great offseason, bringing in a bevy of character guys -- some of the best in the game -- Jonny Gomes, Ryan Dempster, David Ross, Joel Hanrahan and Shane Victorino.
But the acquisition of Stephen Drew to play shortstop was one of the most underrated moves of the offseason. Offensively, he is capable of hitting 15 homers with 15 stolen bases and still boasts solid range to both sides and will be a big improvement for the Red Sox.
A couple of questions remain: Mike Napoli's bum hips will be monitored closely, and the hope is to coax 25 to 30 home runs from him. Could Will Middlebrooks have a down sophomore year, now that the league has seen him?
Jacoby Ellsbury will try for an MVP season and repeat his 2011 campaign. It being his walk year before free agency will be motivation enough for him.