2009 AL East Preview: Seeking Normalcy

. Monday, March 30, 2009
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Editor's note: "Seeking Normalcy" is the first of a seven-part series previewing the 2009 MLB season. Part Two, "More of the Same,"spot-lighting the NL East is below. Parts Three and Four, spot-lighting the NL and AL Central Divisions will be published Wednesday, April 1. Parts Five and Six, spot-lighting the NL and AL West Divisions will be published Friday, April 3. Part Seven, covering season awards and postseason berths will be published Monday, April 6.

What better way to get this thing rolling than by starting off with the two big boys, one smart-ass little brother and the two glue-sniffing cousins the family doesn't talk about? I give you the AL East.

1. Boston Red Sox
Figures: 95-67, second place, wildcard winner, lost to Tampa Bay in ALCS (4-3).
2008 headline: Did that blow your mind? That just happened!
2009 lockerroom motto: Is Dustin Pedroia (right) gonna have to choke a bitch?

Key additions: P John Smoltz, P Brad Penny, P Takashi Saito, OF Rocco Baldelli, P Junichi Tazawa.
Key losses: P Curt Schilling (free agent/retired), P Bartolo Colon (to CWS), P Paul Byrd (retired), OF Coco Crisp (to KC), 1B Sean Casey (retired), P Mike Timlin (retired).

Lineup: A-
The BoSox have a ton of talent in the lineup, but if David Ortiz isn't right, this offense goes no where. A wrist is largely to blame for his 26 home runs, 89 RBI and .264 batting average in 109 games, all of which were lows since coming to Boston in 2003. The other factor is that Jason Bay, while a very good player, simply isn't Manny Ramirez. The Red Sox are more well-rounded than they were a few seasons back with (gulp) reigning AL MVP Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jacoby Ellsbury, but this engine isn't a four-cylinder Skyline rice-burning speedster. It's a 440 Big Block built for power and Big Papi turns the key. Oh, and don't expect to see J.D. Drew repeat what he did last year. By that I mean both carry the team on his back for a month or play 100 games.
Rotation: B+
The top, Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka, might be the best One-Two-Three in baseball. Their No. 4, Penny, felt burned by the Dodgers and will be pitching with a purpose until his arm no longer lets him, probably sometime in July. Tim Wakefield doesn't scare anyone anymore, even on good days. There are other options. 24-year-old flame-thrower Clay Buchholz has pitched great this spring and Justin Masterson could come out of the pen. Either way, whoever winds up keeping the seat warm for Smoltz (shoulder) could be there a while, ensuring that the 41-year-old ex-Brave is 100 percent before he toes the rubber sometime after May.
Bullpen: A-
It's been a while since this part of the pitching staff outperformed the other and the biggest reason why this year's different is depth. Jonathan Papelbon is one of the three best closers in baseball. Masterson is a budding setup man, assuming he doesn't get pilfered by the starting rotation. Saito is an understated get for them. Not only does he give Hideki Okajima somebody shoot the breeze with in his native tongue, he'll also split the seventh inning with him.

  • Jed Lowrie is underrated. Whether he beats out Julio Lugo or has to wait around for a Mike Lowell injury, his infield versatility and decent bat gives the Red Sox bench something few others have.
  • Hard to believe Clay Buchholz starts the season at Triple-A Pawtucket, but if he does, he might be stuck there a while.

2. New York Yankees
Figures: 89-73, third place.
2008 headline: Junior (Steinbrener) wet the bed.
2009 lockerroom motto: Recession? What recession?

Key additions: P CC Sabathia, 1B Mark Teixeira, P A.J. Burnett, OF Nick Swisher.
Key losses: 1B/DH Jason Giambi (to OAK), OF Bobby Abreu (to LAA), P Mike Mussina (retired), C Ivan Rodriguez (to HOU), Sidney Ponson (to KC).

Lineup: A
The only reason this isn't an A+ is because Alex Rodriguez is out until mid-May. Dare I say that this star-studded lineup actually got better in the offseason? They're younger, faster and more durable. Of all the free agents the Yankees have shelled out big-time cash to, Teixeira is the only one who is worth every penny. Throw in a Nick Swisher here, some seasoned Xavier Nady there and this batting order will be what it is every year is only with less disappointment.
Rotation: B
Durability questions abound for this fivesome. If Burnett's elbow falls off in the forest at Brian Cashman's there to hear it, does it make a flopping sound? Andy Pettitte's age and Joba Chammberlain's tubby frame and herky-jerky mechanics will cause these guys to make at least one trip to the disabled list. Even Chien-Ming Wang spent half of 2008 on the shelf. Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy, both also familiar with the DL, are waiting for a chance to redeem themselves. Most Yankees fans are would prefer neither gets his opportunity anytime soon. Sabathia's a stud, but he can only toe the rubber every fifth game.
Bullpen: B-
It's polite to offer a compliment before delving into criticism so here it is: Mariano Rivera is hands-down the penultimate closer, best there ever was, best there ever will be. However, the talent around him is questionable at best. Brian Bruney had himself a nice 2008, but doubling that 1.83 ERA is a little more realistic for '09. Say he does stay the team's setup man, is Edwar Ramirez or Jose Veras good options in the seventh? Is Yogi Berra a cunning linguist? I don't usually put a whole lot of stock in the lefty-on-lefty pitching ideology, but if Damaso Marte is your only option against the David Ortizes of the world, you're in trouble.

  • Even with a record-breaking spending spree, Brian Cashman managed to shave $20 million from the team's 2008 payroll.
  • Anyone else realize that Derek Jeter had a down year last year? Didn't think so.
3. Tampa Bay Rays
Figures: 97-65, first place, lost to Philadelphia in World Series (4-1).
2008 headline: Where did this awesomeness come from?!
2009 lockerroom motto: We had a good run.

Key additions: OF/DH Pat Burrell, P Jason Isringhausen, 2B Adam Kennedy, OF Matt Joyce, OF Gabe Kapler, P Brian Shouse, 3B Morgan Ensberg.
Key losses: OF Rocco Baldelli (to BOS), DH Cliff Floyd (to SD), P Edwin Jackson (to DET), OF Jonny Gomes (to CIN), P Trever Miller (to STL).

Lineup: B+
Some teams embody the cities in which they play. For example, you could imagine Ben Rothlisberger working in a steel mill by the Allegheny River. This group of 20-somethings fly in the face of their social-security collecting fan base. There's no reason to believe that B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria can't repeat what they did in '08, if not get better. Same thing goes for Carl Crawford (.273 BA, 8 HRs, 25 SBs), who had his lowest totals since his rookie campaign in 2002. And inking Pat "The Bat" Burrell was a great move. Nevertheless, don't expect to see the type of offense the Rays displayed in the first two rounds of last year's playoffs.
Rotation: B-
Like the Yankees, this grade has as much to do with the times these guys are kept off the mound as it does with what they do when they're on it. James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine are all young arms (Shields being the oldest at 27) who had above-average seasons. But after averaging 30 starts and only one stint on the DL between them, you have to believe the injury bug is going to bite someone and when it does they'll be no Yankee-esque trade made to plug the whole. The Rays are hoping Jason Hammel does a good job keeping the seat warm for David Price.
Bullpen: C+
This is the unit that surprised the hell out of everyone last season. Do you smell a repeat? I don't. Both J.P. Howell (2.22) and Grant Balfour (1.54) had ERAs two-and-a-half times below their career averages. And Dan Wheeler and Troy Percival STILL throwing the eighth and ninth? The backup plan's Isringhausen? Are you kidding me?! Good thing they signed 40-year-old Brian Shouse to snuggle up to that "dinner by 4, bed by 8" crowd I talked about earlier. Welcome back 2007. 2008, we hardly knew ye.

  • Manager Joe Maddon's got a bright post-baseball future if and when he gets to that point. Anyone who can keep the Rays believing that they're a 97-win club is a motivational speaker without peer. Tony Robbins, watch out.
  • Ever notice how you only find fair-weather fans in fair-weather cities i.e. Los Angeles and Miami? What's going to happen when these Rays win fewer games than the median summertime temperature in Tampa? FYI, that's about 84 degrees.
4. Toronto Blue Jays
Figures: 86-76, fourth place
2008 headline: We were good too, ya know.
2009 lockerroom motto: We WERE good too, ya know.

Key additions: P Matt Clement, C Michael Barrett, 1B Kevin Millar, P Mike Maroth.
Key losses: P A.J. Burnett (to NYY), C Gregg Zaun (to BAL), OF Brad Wilkerson (to BOS), Shawn Marcum (injury), Kevin Mench (Japan).

Lineup: C
This would be a rebuilding year if only the Jays had something to rebuild with. Instead, Marco Scutaro, Lyle Overbay and Scott Rolen keep their starting jobs and Alex Rios calls his agent looking for a way out. Vernon Wells would be, too if he didn't have 6 years left on his $126 million deal. While he can't waive his no-trade clause fast enough, there aren't too many takers bidding $18 million for the 25 home runs, 95 RBI and a .290 batting average. Blue chipper Travis Snider is an early Rookie of the Year favorite, but the roster hardly screams "youth movement" when Adam Lind has to fight Kevin Millar for ABs.
Rotation: C+
Roy Halladay can't keep doing this. Rather, the Jays can't keep doing this to Roy Halladay. He's pitched more innings (691.1) than anyone in baseball over the last three seasons. Last year, he threw 246 innings, giving his team ample opportunities to support him with runs. In his 11 losses and two no-decisions, Toronto totaled 29. Good use of your staff ace's 2.78 ERA. Everyone beside Halladay is an unproven commodity. Jesse Litsch, David Purcey and Scott Richmond all have less than three years of major league experience. With Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum out for most if not all of the the '09 season, the Jays can kiss last year's major-league leading 3.49 ERA goodbye.
Bullpen: B+
This unit is the most underrated in baseball. Scott Downs, Jesse Carlson, Brandon League, and Brian Thallet and Casey Janssen all had ERAs below B.J. Ryan's 2.95 last year. They all won't keep it up, but the Jays really only need half of them to for this bullpen to stay in baseball's top 10. The question is who'll step into the closers role not if, but when Ryan goes down with an injury.

  • Cito Gaston rung up a 51-37 record down the stretch of last season and somewhere a Joe Carter Fairy got its wings. He's also one of the only guys in major league baseball who doesn't have to be issued a new jersey for Retro Sundays.
  • The same benign run support that plagued Halladay scared newly-aquired Adam Loewen to trade in his breaking ball for batting gloves.
5. Baltimore Orioles
Figures: 68-93, fifth place.
2008 headline: I was there when we gave up 30 runs.
2009 lockerroom motto: When's Matt Wieters getting here?

Key additions: P Koji Uehara, OF Felix Pie, INF Ty Wigginton, P Rich Hill, P Mark Hendrickson, C Gregg Zaun, SS Cesar Izturis, OF Ryan Freel.
Key losses: P Daniel Cabrera (to WAS), Adam Loewen (retired from P; to TOR as OF) 1B Kevin Millar (to TOR), P Garrett Olson (to SEA), C Ramon Hernandez (to CIN), OF Jay Payton (free agent).

Lineup: B
There's dozens of questions marks, but most of them the good kind, the is-the-young-guy-ready-to-break-out type. Nick Markakis is Zeus among greek baseball players and a future all star. Adam "Galaga" Jones shoots down fly balls like it's going out of style and has budding pop to boot. Former Cubs speedster Felix Pie would be playing center field on 28 other major league teams. Gregg Zaun better not get comfortable behind the dish because Wieters, the cornerstone of the O's reclamation project, will arrive soon and he and his big bat will be staying a while. Then there's mainstays like Aubrey Huff, who won't hit 32 bombs like last season, but will make it so Markakis sees better pitches. Brian Roberts is a shoe-in for a .290 average with 40 doubles and 40 swipes.
Rotation: D
Staff "ace" Jeremy Guthrie looks like Jim Palmer compared the guys behind him. When a 34-year-old Japanese import, Koji Uehara, makes his major league debut as your No. 2 starter, you're in for a world of 30-3 type of hurt. Mark Hendrickson only resembles Randy Johnson in awkward physical appearance, David Pauley had a double-digit ERA last season and no one knows when Rich Hill is going to be ready to pitch. Now rumor has it that Danys Baez may work his way into the rotation. Can anyone in the front office explain why pitching wasn't a priority this offseason?
Bullpen: C-
The pitching doesn't get much better from the seventh inning on. George Sherrill and Chris Ray will likely split saves, each blowing a half dozen along the way. 24-year-old Jim Johnson is the only chance the Orioles have to develop another front-line reliever. Radhames Liz and Dennis Sarfate both sucked their way out of the starting rotation. What does that tell you?

  • Daniel Cabrera's 100 walks a season would be a godsend right now.
  • Breaking news: Baltimore owner Peter Angelos petitions league office for more home gomes per season. "We want to schedule more Cal Ripken Jr. Days to make the fans overlook our irrelevance."
  • More breaking news: Angelos uses promise of lamb gyros to lure Markakis into date night with ugly daughter.


Anonymous said...

Tampa bay third is ridiculous. They have the best rotation and second best lineup in the division, barely behind the BoSox. I can see putting them behind the Sox..but the Yankees???