The American League East is the best collection of teams in all of sports. However, last summer/fall, it was also the scene of both biggest collapse and one of the greatest comebacks ever in sports as well. The Boston Red Sox entered the season with all of the juice, after owning the free agent market the previous winter. They also entered September with a 9.5 game lead….which they hacked off, and ultimately blew on the last day of the season, and put the Tampa Bay Rays into the playoffs.

Actual Standings

  1. New York Yankees (97-65)
  2. Tampa Bay Rays (91-71)
  3. Boston Red Sox (90-72)
  4. Toronto Blue Jays (81-81)
  5. Baltimore Orioles (69-93)

    Longoria's last inning walk off launched the Rays into another October, while dooming the Red Sox all at once.

So what now? The Yankees are the most consistent team in baseball over the last 5 years, but haven’t been able to break through since 2009. The Blue Jays and Orioles have been the perpetual underdogs, but have gone in different directions in their efforts to shake that role. Can the Rays keep the momentum of a strong finish last fall, coupled with another wave of young talent coming to the forefront? Finally, in Boston is the curse back or will they have a rebound season and take the fight to the rest of the division themselves this year…

All-Division Team

Catcher: Matt Wieters – Orioles

First Base: Adrian Gonzalez – Red Sox

Second Base: Robinson Cano – Yankees

Third Base: Evan Longoria – Rays

Shortstop: Derek Jeter – Yankees

Left Field: Carl Crawford – Red Sox

Center Field: Jacoby Ellsbury – Red Sox

Right Field: Jose Bautista – Blue Jays

Designated Hitter: David Ortiz – Red Sox

 

Starting Pitcher: CC Sabathia – Yankees

Starting Pitcher: James Shields – Rays

Starting Pitcher: David Price – Rays         

Starting Pitcher: Jon Lester – Red Sox

Sabathia has averaged 19 wins per year in the Bronx since returning to the AL in 2009.

Bullpen Righty: David Robertson – Yankees

Bullpen Lefty: Darren Oliver – Blue Jays

Closer: Mariano Rivera – Yankees

 

Best Players

  1. Robinson Cano – Yankees
  2. Jose Bautista – Blue Jays
  3. Mariano Rivera – Yankees
  4. Evan Longoria – Rays
  5. Adrian Gonzalez – Red Sox
  6. CC Sabathia – Yankees
  7. Jacoby Ellsbury – Red Sox
  8. Mark Teixeira – Yankees
  9. Curtis Granderson – Yankees
  10. Dustin Pedroia – Red Sox

 

Bautista has taken many baseballs into the stratosphere the last two years. Now it's time to bring the rest of the Jays with him.

Lineup

  1. Yankees
  2. Red Sox
  3. Blue Jays
  4. Rays
  5. Orioles

One thru seven, there is no such thing as a break in the Yankee lineup. They were in the top three in every major offensive category in 2011, and A-Rod is alledgely in the best shape he’s been in for years. In Boston, there are still some missing pieces to injury woes, but the potential is still there for them to be devastating as well. The Blue Jays are based around Joey Bats, but as a team they have led the AL in homers as recently as 2010, and are getting better.

Rotation

  1. Rays
  2. Yankees
  3. Red Sox
  4. Blue Jays
  5. Orioles

    Embarassment of Riches: Shields heads a dominant Rays staff, that actually has too few spots to let all of it's talent shine.

Top to bottom, there’s no better group in baseball than Tampa’s. After the obvious headache of James Shields and David Price at the top, there’s 2011 Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson, then either Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann, and finally topped off by uber-prospect Matt Moore, who could make it back-to-back Rays ROY’s. If Phil Hughes can round back into shape, coupled with repeat rookie performances from Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda, the Yanks could have their best arms offering in years.

1-2 Punch

  1. Rays (Shields & Price)
  2. Yankees (Sabathia & Pineda)
  3. Red sox (Beckett & Lester)
  4. Blue Jays (Romero & Morrow)
  5. Orioles (Britton & Hammel)

In the last two years, both Shields and Price have taken turns finishing in the top 3 in Cy Young voting. Price racked up a career high 218 K’s last summer, and “Complete Game” James led the MLB with 11 games started and finished. Josh Beckett and Jon Lester both have all the stuff in the world, but lacks of health and focus hid that for much of last year. Ricky Romero is one of the best arms nobody talks about up in T-Dot.

Bullpen

  1. Yankees
  2. Blue Jays
  3. Red Sox
  4. Rays
  5. Orioles

If the starters lag, the Yanks have more than enough firepower held back. In what could be Rivera’s victory lap season, he’s joined by Robertson and Rafeal Soriano, both former All-Stars in their own right. Francisco Cordero and Sergio Santos both joined the Toronto pen this winter and will be a tough 8-9 combo. Andrew Bailey is has been annually among the best ninth inning guys in the biz, and will come out of the shadows of Oakland to showcase in Boston this year.

Tablesetters

  1. Red Sox (Ellsbury & Pedroia)
  2. Yankees (Jeter & Granderson)
  3. Rays (Jennings & Upton)
  4. Blue Jays (Escober & Johnson)
  5. Orioles (Chavez & Hardy)

Ellsbury was always a burner on the bases, but he took his game to another level last year, knocking out 32 homers while still swiping 39 bags. Pedroia is one of the best do-it-all guys in the game, and stole 29 bases of his own in ’10. Granderson brings 40 home run power to the second spot in the Yankee ambush, while Desmond Jennings and B.J. Upton both have a very real shot at 40 steals this year.

Heart of the Lineup

  1. Yankees (Cano/Teixeira/Rodriguez)
  2. Red Sox (Gonzalez/Youkilis/Ortiz)
  3. Rays (Longoria/Pena/Zobrist)
  4. Blue Jays (Bautista/Lind/Encarnacion)
  5. Orioles (Markakis/Jones/Wieters)

As a unit, there’s no more dangerous core of any lineup than the Yanks 3-4-5. Cano has hit .300 with 40 doubles and 25 homers for the last three years, Teixeira has averaged 37 homers a year since coming to the Bronx and A-Rod only has, oh, 629 homers himself. Carlos Pena comes to find himself in nice company between two of the game’s most complete players in Tampa, and Bautista has hit 97 homers over the last two years. If Carl Crawford gets healthy, he takes the Red Sox group to another level.

Markakis and Jones are two of the few bright spots in a rough situation in Baltimore.

Bench

  1. Red Sox
  2. Yankees
  3. Rays
  4. Orioles
  5. Blue Jays

Darnell McDonald, Mike Aviles and Nick Punto give the Sox a very versatile offering that really fortifies their defensive potential. Francisco Cervelli is a starter quality backstop in many places, perhaps including New York. Jeff Keppinger is a toolsy player that Joe Maddon will make good use of.

Defense

  1. Rays
  2. Yankees
  3. Orioles
  4. Red Sox
  5. Blue Jays

There’s no where the Rays are bad on defense, and it is a major reason why their more hallowed pitching staff has the success it does. Longoria and Pena can shutdown the corners, while Upton, Jennings and Joyce may be the best defensive outfield in baseball. Cano and Teixeira make hitting the ball through the right side nearly impossible in NY.

Speed

  1. Rays
  2. Red Sox
  3. Yankees
  4. Blue Jays
  5. Orioles

The Rays are young and play like it. They get plus speed from several places, and Ben Zobrist has 43 steals while only being cut down nine times over the last two years. Pedroia, Ellsbury and Crawford, if ever on the field together for long, could swipe 100 bags easy. On the other side, the Orioles have been very stationary since injuries took under Brian Roberts two years ago.

Manager

  1. Joe Maddon, Rays
  2. Joe Girardi, Yankees
  3. Bobby Valentine, Red Sox
  4. Buck Showalter, Orioles
  5. John Farrell, Blue Jays

Maddon gets more out of his squad, in spite of nearly constantly playing against the odds, than any other manager in the game. On the other side, it’s often popular to think the Yankees just buy wins, but Girardi is a great manager of both players and people. For a team coming off a tumultuous year, it will be interesting to see how the lively Valentine injects himself into steadying a situation such as the Sox locker room.

Valentine will be charged with settling down a carnival of both talent and personality in year one in Boston.

Rookies/Prospects to Watch

  1. Matt Moore (Pitcher, Rays)
  2. Felix Doubront (Pitcher, Red Sox)
  3. Dellin Betances (Pitcher, Yankees)
  4. Travis D’Arnaud (Catcher, Blue Jays)
  5. Tsuyoshi Wada (Pitcher, Orioles)

Moore is so talented that no less of a baseball mind than Maddon recognized he was talented enough to kick off the Rays playoff stand last year as Game 1 starter after only nine innings of MLB experience beforehand. Doubront could be a major factor on if a turnaround season in Fenway really can happen. Japanese import Wada could be a very important factor in stabilizing the Orioles shaky pitching.

Finances

  1. Red Sox
  2. Yankees
  3. Orioles
  4. Blue Jays
  5. Rays

The Red Sox and Yankees battles on the field are legendary, but their battles at the bank are nearly just as legendary. The edge in the financial war goes to the Sox right now, as they have more needs that they are willing to pay out for throughout the year. Also, the Yanks have to be cognizant of not picking up many more big contracts so they don’t violate the payroll penalty feature of the new CBA agreement.

Leap Forward Candidates

  1. Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays
  2. Desmond Jennings, Rays
  3. Jeremy Hellickson, Rays
  4. Daniel Bard, Red Sox
  5. Sergio Santos, Blue Jays

Evan Longoria is the best third baseman in baseball. However, in a few years he may not even be the best in his own division, by no fault of his own. Toronto’s 22 year old third sacker is the truth, and he’s about to get his first full year to show it. Jennings showed why losing Crawford was more than manageable for the Rays, after hitting 10 homers and stealing 20 bases in 63 late season games. Hellickson has right handed Tom Glavine written all over him, and kept his ERA under three as a rookie in baseball’s best hitting division.

Impact Additions

  1. Michael Pineda, (Yankees from Mariners)
  2. Andrew Bailey (Red Sox from A’s)
  3. Mark Melancon (Red Sox from Astros)
  4. Carlos Pena (Rays from Cubs)
  5. Cody Ross (Red Sox from Giants)

Pineda was often the most impressive pitcher in Seattle a year ago, which is saying A LOT since he was following behind Felix Hernandez. But the 6’7 righty was often dominant, making the All-Star Game as a rookie. Bailey can relate to this scenario, as he moves east after being Rookie of the Year and an All-Star twice in his first two seasons. Along with Melancon, the backend of the Sox pen will tough.

 

2011 PROJECTION

  1. Rays
  2. Yankees
  3. Red Sox
  4. Blue Jays
  5. Orioles

Baseball’s five tools are hitting for average, hitting for power, speed, throwing and defense. And the Rays are by and far the best at doing a little bit of everything in the game. Top off their talent in the field with a manager in Maddon that can get the most of team consistently, and a team that will find more ways to win than any other in the game. They just play pure detail, intangible surplus baseball.

And it’s not that it will be easy though. The Yankees will potentially be a better team than they were a year ago. They’ll score a lot of runs and get a definite chance to win every fifth day on CC’s turn. But how will their revamped and rehabbed pitching staff do? They’ve tried to hit their way to the title the last two years, but have come up short.

Not much reason to think anything different will happen this year yet. It could also be a repeat story in Boston and Toronto. To the Blue Jays credit, they have continually gotten better over the last two years, and could be ready to take another gradual step this year by snatching third place from the Red Sox. However, last season very well still could be an aberration for the BoSox. There’s so much talent on that team, and some smart additions as well, it would be foolish to count them out.  However, it would be foolish to think that the perpetually backsliding Orioles will do anything different this summer, and I smell a fire sale of the few attractive parts of that collection coming up this summer.

If this year’s Wild Card rules were in play last year, three AL East teams would have made the postseason, and that very well could still happen this year. But in the end, the south (of the division) shall rise again. The East’s Florida contingent won in 2008, then in 2010 and in ’12, they’ll take home another title.

 

Don’t forget to check out both the American League West & Central previews from this week as well.

 

Next week, its National League forecast time during the last week of Spring Training. What does the Senior Circuit have in store? For the lead up to that, and reflections on this and more, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

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