Posts Tagged ‘Tampa Bay Rays’

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Arizona Diamondbacks

The full glory that is Opening Day is here again, and with such beginnings, an expectation towards the end is already in play. Over the past two weeks, I have produced division-by-division previews from the ceiling to the floor of each team and how I feel about their chances for this summer. All manners of things can happen in-between now and the 161 games that follow from today onwards, from injury to simply over-achievement made good on (see the reigning World Series champs), and getting a grasp on exact where it all will play out is more often than not an exercise in calculated futility.

However, it’s the fun type of futility that everybody is invested in this time of the year, because for the most part, hopes spring rightfully eternal as the season opens up. With advent of the extra Wild Card spot and play-in game, more teams than ever have finished in range of the postseason—and not at the expense of quality of competition. The average win total of the two teams that have emerged from the Wild Card game in its first two years of existence as been 91 wins; a clear indicator of worth level of championship level competition. And while one as yet to reach the World Series, that day is coming—and it could be nigh.

Here is my best take on how the MLB season to come could play out, including a few bonus Award favorites in each league as well—and a few other random tidbits to come.

 

The Postseason

NL Wild Card Game—Pittsburgh Pirates vs. San Francisco Giants

Landing a Wild Card spot will tough in the NL this year, but I like what the Giants have done to address their lineup deficiencies and their starting staff is deep and experienced as well. The Pirates on the other hand could have the type of the team that puts up a win total that could win some divisions, but falls short within their own. Winner: Pirates

AL Wild Card Game—Tampa Bay Rays vs. Kansas City Royals

In what could be an intriguing matchup of two teams playing at the peak of their competitive window, both clubs are poised to take the long way to capitalizing on it. The Rays should reach their second straight Wild Card contest, while the Royals are within a stones toss of their first postseason in nearly 30 years. Winner: Rays

 

Division Series

St. Louis Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Pirates

A rematch of what is sure to be a year-long power struggle, as well as a repeat of the best divisional series match up of a year ago, the Caridinals will face another tight challenge to start the postseason. In the end, the Cardinals growing experience with their young arms (as well as an active Shelby Miller this time around) pulls them ahead again in the matchup. Winner: Cardinals

Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Washington Nationals

This is a tight showcase of two teams that are fairly evenly matched. Both have great staffs and lineups that are as stacked as NL 8-man order can be. But the presence of Kershaw twice in a series is tough to bet against, I won’t today either. Winner: Dodgers

Boston Red Sox vs. Tampa Bay Rays

Look familiar? This dance was had last fall when the Rays headed to Boston as the freshly rewarded Wild Card winners. They stand to be an improved club this year with more experience for their young staff. The Sox have the experience, but I see the edge for the Rays this time around. Winner: Rays

Detroit Tigers vs. Oakland A’s

Can the third time be the charm for Oakland? Each of their previous two seasons have ended at the hands of the Tigers, and more specifically, at the hands of fantastic efforts from Justin Verlander. The third time does not seem to be much more of a charm either, and the Tigers are in line to reach a third consecutive ALCS. Winner: Tigers

 

League Championship Series

Los Angeles Dodgers vs. St. Louis Cardinals

A repeat in the NLCS is ahead of us, only this time the home field advantage swings to the Dodgers way. The Cardinals have made a routine of making it to this point, while the Dodgers are beginning to hit their peak. If they are both at full strength, this could have the intensity of a World Series contest, but in the end, the Cardinals seem to have an edge in the pitching depth department that can swing in their favor. Winner: Cardinals

Detroit Tigers vs. Tampa Bay Rays

A couple of Verlander/Price matchups in the ALCS could be worth the price of admission, but it’s the depth of a rotation that can tell the story here. The Rays are the better team in regards to lineup depth and impact, but the Tigers front end pitching is more impressive. In a series that will be defined by depth and bullpen potency, the Rays make the leap over the Tigers and reach their second World Series in franchise history. Winner: Rays

 

WORLD SERIES

St. Louis Cardinals vs. Tampa Bay Rays

Two very similar teams would face off here: balanced lineups that deploy a variety of approaches and a complete pitching staff, headlined by one of the game’s best pitchers. Matchups of this type usually come down to the moment and experience in it making the difference, and in that department, the Cardinals are unmatched in recent years and it will be the deciding factor in 12th World Series title. Winner: Cardinals

 

MLB: Spring Training-New York Mets at Detroit Tigers

As a capper to this preview exercise, a few award picks as well:

NL Most Valuable Player

1. Freddie Freeman—Braves

2. Yadier Molina—Cardinals

3. Ryan Braun—Brewers

4. Andrew McCutchen—Pirates

5. Paul Goldschmidt—Diamondbacks

AL Most Valuable Player

1. Mike Trout—Angels

2. Miguel Cabrera—Tigers

3. Evan Longoria—Rays

4. Adrian Beltre—Rangers

5. Robinson Cano—Mariners

NL Cy Young Award

1. Clayton Kershaw—Dodgers

2. Stephen Strasburg—Nationals

3. Adam Wainwright—Cardinals

4. Madison Bumgarner—Giants

5. Cliff Lee—Phillies

AL Cy Young Award

1. Justin Verlander—Tigers

2. David Price—Rays

3. Felix Hernandez—Mariners

4. Jered Weaver—Angels

5. Chris Sale—White Sox

NL Rookie of the Year

1. Billy Hamilton—Reds

2. Chris Owings—Diamondbacks

3. Gregory Polanco—Pirates

AL Rookie of the Year

1. Xander Bogearts—Red Sox

2. Nick Castellanos—Tigers

3. Taijuan Walker—Mariners

NL Comeback Player of the Year

1. Starlin Castro—Cubs

2. Johnny Cuerto—Reds

3. Matt Kemp—Dodgers

AL Comeback Player of the Year

1. Albert Pujols—Angels

2. Grady Sizemore—Red Sox

3. Michael Pineda—Yankees

 

Well, that’s about it and that’s about as much ground as I can ground as I can fly without my crystal ball. For the on the run Opening Day info, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

2013 World Series Game 6: St. Louis Cardinals v. Boston Red Sox

I have said it for the last decade at least, and maintain it to this day: there is no division in professional sports that is better than the American League East. When a 74 win team finishes in last place in a division, it means that the internal gauntlet is about as severe as it can get. In its current incarnation, it has dominated the postseason landscape of the junior circuit since the Wild Card era came into play, and for the 18 years since the four-team (and now five) team playoff alignment began, it has produced 15 Wild Card candidates. And in that same span, 11 AL East clubs have gone to the Fall Classic, and eight have gone on to win it, including last year’s Boston Red Sox

2013 Finish

1. Boston Red Sox

2. Tampa Bay Rays

3. New York Yankees

4. Baltimore Orioles

5. Toronto Blue Jays

So all things considered, it should be no surprise that picking through the East is akin to picking a favorite in the League as a whole. And the competition never dies down between the five clubs either, as this winter the one-up game was in full effect to catch up to the Champs. The Orioles slow played their hand before making a couple of late winter pickups as they look to breakthrough the glass ceiling that has hovered above them in the division, while the Blue Jays have been mostly quiet, choosing instead to call last year a spade and carry the same potent, yet oft-injured ammo into this spring.

The Rays and Red Sox took similar routes, resigning their own and putting faith in youngsters to replace the few lost parts they sustained. And the Yankees…well the Yankees spent nearly half a billion dollars to make sure that fourth place is not an option again. Regardless of how each team’s route plays out, one thing is for certain, one of the five clubs will inevitably be a big player in the much larger picture eight months from now—as long as they can survive themselves first.

All-Division Lineup

1. Jose Reyes—Shortstop, Blue Jays

2. Dustin Pedroia—Second Base, Red Sox

3. Evan Longoria—Third Base, Rays

4. David Ortiz—Designated Hitter, Red Sox

5. Chris Davis—First Base, Orioles

6. Jose Bautista—Right Field, Blue Jays

7. Adam Jones—Center Field, Orioles

8. Brian McCann—Catcher, Yankees

9. Brett Gardner—Left Field, Yankees

 

Starting Pitcher: David Price—Rays

Starting Pitcher: Jon Lester—Red Sox

Starting Pitcher: CC Sabathia—Yankees

Starting Pitcher: Clay Buchholz—Red Sox

Right Handed Reliever: Joel Peralta—Rays

Lefty Handed Reliever: Jake McGee—Rays

Closer: Koji Uehara—Red Sox

Derek_Jeter_ST

Jeter finds himself amid a fresh collection of well compensated talent for his final go around, but even at the end, the team will need him on hand if it is to maximize its potential.

Lineup

1. Yankees

2. Red Sox

3. Rays

4. Orioles

5. Blue Jays

 

The Yankees spent top dollar to overhaul their lineup, which was basically Cano and pray for rain last year, and their mission was successful. They will bring out five new starters of a high enough quality that solid comebacks from Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira would merely be bonuses. The Sox return the majority of the core that produced some of the timeliest hitting any October has witnessed in years, while the Orioles have an impressive power core of Chris Davis, Nelson Cruz and Adam Jones.

Heart of the Lineup

1. Orioles

2. Red Sox

3. Yankees

4. Blue Jays

5. Rays

The addition of Cruz providing protection behind Davis…who is the ultimate protection for Adam Jones makes the middle of the Orioles’ lineup as bad of a grind as the AL will run out this year. In Boston, Dustin Pedroia (193 2013 hits) is the perfect on-base threat to put in front of the duo of David Ortiz and Mike Napoli, who combined for 53 homers a year ago. In Toronto, if Jose Bautista is healthy again, there’s a chance that he could combine with Edwin Encarnacion for 80 homers this summer.

Table Setters

1. Red Sox

2. Yankees

3. Rays

4. Blue Jays

5. Orioles

Shane Victorino (21 steals, .294 average) and Daniel Nava (.385 on-base%, 5th best in AL) could wreak havoc yet again to start things off for the Sox, while down in Tampa, the combo of David Dejesus and Ben Zobrist have a chance to set up the table nicely for Evan Longoria and Wil Myers to both chase 100 RBI.

Depth

1. Rays

2. Red Sox

3. Yankees

4. Blue Jays

5. Orioles

Strength is always in the numbers for the Rays, and Joe Maddon uses his full roster better than anybody else in the game. The Jays have four starting-caliber outfielders, and the duo of Ryan Hanigan and Jose Molina is a very strong backstop duo. With Jonny Gomes, David Ross and Mike Carp in the mix, the Sox are not far behind however. The option to rotate Ichiro, Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Beltran in the Bronx is a necessary depth move for the aging, yet talented Yankee outfield as well.

After an injury hindered first half, Price went 7-3 with a 2.87 ERA and a .236 average against in the second half.

After an injury hindered first half, Price went 7-3 with a 2.87 ERA and a .236 average against in the second half.

Rotation

1. Rays

2. Red Sox

3. Yankees

4. Orioles

5. Blue Jays

Tampa keeps churning out more and more arms without ceasing it seems. David Price is the headline, but Matt Moore won 17 games in his second year and both Alex Cobb and Chris Archer have plenty of immediate promise. The Yankees are putting a lot of faith in a few commodities with much to prove in CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka, while the Blue Jays have to hope R.A. Dickey can once again led an underdog staff as he did two years ago.

1-2 Punch

1. Red Sox

2. Yankees

3. Rays

4. Blue Jays

5. Orioles

This is a tight call to that narrowly goes in the Sox favor, due to the big game experience of Jon Lester and John Lackey. Hiroki Kuroda has silently been the most consistent arm in the Yankee arsenal the past two seasons, and Price (30-13 record the past two years) by himself makes the Rays a favorite in most head-to-head matchups he takes the ball in.

Bullpen

1. Rays

2. Red Sox

3. Blue Jays

4. Yankees

5. Orioles

There’s no true powerhouse pen in the division, but the return of Grant Balfour to a Tampa group that features plus arms in Jake McGee, Joel Peralta and former closers in Heath Bell and Juan Carlos Oviedo is hard to deny. It would be impossible for Koji Uehara to have a better year than he did last time around, but his presence assures that Boston must be beat early. The Blue Jays have an underrated late inning group, while how (and if) David Robertson can transition to the ninth is beyond simply crucial for the Yankees.

Machado_13

Machado led all AL defenders in dWAR last year, with a 4.3 games above replacement level wtih the glove. All while being 20 years old and playing out of position.

Defense

1. Orioles

2. Rays

3. Red Sox

4. Blue Jays

5. Yankees

Baltimore has FIVE current or immediately past holders of Gold Gloves in their everyday lineup, and their defensive abilities allow for their pitchers to not have to be as sharp as other rotations in the league. The Rays are no slouches either, with Longoria, Escobar, Loney and their entire outfield having plus range. In Boston, Pedroia and Victorino are the best gloves at their respective positions in the AL.

Manager

1. Joe Maddon—Rays

2. Buck Showalter—Orioles

3. Joe Girardi—Yankees

4. John Farrell—Red Sox

5. John Gibbons—Blue Jays

There’s nobody better at motivating and knowing his players than Maddon is, and it allows him to continuing pull more out of his rosters than their on-paper talent shows. Showalter’s veteran savvy is the best in the league, and Joe Girardi is regularly underappreciated due to the talent at his command.

Finances

1. Yankees

2. Red Sox

3. Blue Jays

4. Orioles

5. Rays

The Yankees can spend at will, and despite the rumors that they want to be luxury tax conscious, in the end, the wins will always take priority over the cost of chasing them. The Blue Jays look for the value deal, but have the dollars to add what they need to stay in the race if they get close to it.

Impact Additions

1. Jacoby Ellsbury (Yankees via Free Agency)

2. Carlos Beltran (Yankees via Free Agency)

3. Masahiro Tanaka (Yankees via Free Agency)

4. Brian McCann (Yankees via Free Agency)

5. Ubaldo Jimenez (Orioles via Free Agency)

Yankees, Yankees and more Yankees here, with each playing a major role in the team’s immediate success. Outside of NY, the Orioles played their free agent hand slow, but played it well in adding a new staff ace in Jimenez and All-Star caliber outfielder in Nelson Cruz. The Sox addition of Edward Mujica gives them another experienced presence that has succeeded in every role in the pen previously.

B_Lawrie

The whole package is there with Lawrie, but its going to take health and maturity meeting up to help him make the leap to fill out his sizable potential at age 24.

Leap Forward

1. Wil Myers—Rays

2. Alex Cobb—Rays

3. Brett Lawrie—Blue Jays

4. Chris Archer—Rays

5. Will Middlebrooks—Red Sox

Myer is an odd candidate to think will have a major jump forward considering he is coming off of a Rookie of the Year debut, but considering he did so in barely a half of a season, what he could do over a full year could be in the 30 home run/40 double rate. Lawrie has been on the verge for the past two years, but he is an elite defender and has all the tools at the plate to contribute anywhere from 2-5.

Rookies/Propects To Watch

1. Xander Bogaerts—Red Sox

2. Kevin Gausman—Orioles

3. Johnathan Schoop—Orioles

4. Jake Odorizzi—Rays

5. Allen Webster—Red Sox

Bogaerts is that rare mix of both talent and acumen that makes a young player immediately acclimated to the Majors. He proved this by moving to third base and playing a big part of the Sox run through October. Gausman has a plus arm, but just needs to find a place to showcase it in the rotation. His organization make in Schoop should get a fair chance to get the second base job in Baltimore at some point this summer.

PREDICTIONS

1. Boston Red Sox

2. Tampa Bay Rays

3. New York Yankees

4. Baltimore Orioles

5. Toronto Blue Jays

It is never an easy road, and it surely will not be again. A year ago, the Red Sox pulled up from the cellar to the ultimate penthouse by using an overhauled roster, the motivation of a new manager, a recovering city as a rally point and a team that lived for, and thrived in, the moment. But this year, they are targeted by a group of teams that made very smart adjustments, in addition to the various chips on their shoulders.

The Rays are as talented as they have been in years, and whereas finding runs was a problem last season, it should be the least of their concerns this year. Coupled with a strong pitching staff, the only thing that could get in their way this year is if their young starting staff doesn’t hold up over a full year as well as it did in limited time in 2013. On their heels are the Yankees, who have more than enough firepower, and could have the best offense in all of baseball. However, their pitching staff being a success would be slightly an upset of sorts, as they enter the season needing all of their arms to either overachieve, overcome or live up to some lofty expectations—and in some cases, some of each element.

The Orioles and Jays seem to be a step behind each of these teams now, but also have rosters that could would make it no shock at all if they crack into the upper reaches of the division. The O’s need Manny Machado to be healthy and for their pitching staff as a whole to be a bit better than they profile. Meanwhile, the Jays just need to stay healthy and put up tons of runs, because they will need them if this is the pitching staff they tackle most of the year with.

Yet in the end, the balance of the Red Sox and the shared chemistry they have now makes them a very formidable club. They have the veterans in their primes along with the youngsters that have room to grow while playing major parts, yet not have the weight of carrying the club on their shoulders. I see the Sox winning the East again, albeit in a close race, with the Rays being in one of the Wild Card spots and the Yankees perhaps joining them.

Come back to the Cheap Seats over the next two weeks for each divisional breakdown and preview, and for more info from here in real-time, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan

Matt_Garza

The outside looking in can seem the furthest away the closer you are. And while it is impossible to build a team around just one addition, acquiring the right finishing touch can make all of the difference in the world from one year to the next. For the teams that finished either within firing range of a division title (or should have), the Winter Meetings provide a chance to go the extra mile towards winning the race.

But what’s left to do that with? Free agents have been flying off the shelf quicker than at any point in recent history. And while Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury and Joe Nathan are all gone does not mean that the opportunity to make an instant upgrade to what’s returning is. The slight move can be the right move, and here are a few options that a few competitors that finished on the brink of a title could make to close the ranks that eluded them last summer…

Washington Nationals—Omar Infante: For the Nats, it is about adding both depth and rounding out their lineup to secure it is in place for an immediate run. As they showed, in the last month of the season, they are capable of turning it on and playing as well as any team in the NL, but were caught too thin and injured to do so far too often. Infante represents an upgrade at one of their few questionable positions, and also provides depth all throughout the infield and in the outfield if needed.

Pittsburgh Pirates—Kendrys Morales: The general feel is that Morales will need to have the DH spot open to play from, but for the Pirates who have lost Justin Morneau, Marlon Byrd and Garrett Jones, adding the type of power bat that he represents in-between Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez upgrades them put them on par with the Cardinal club they are chasing. The price may be high, but the value would be worth it, and with Morales likely to last a while due to the draft pick compensation tied to him, they likely could get him at much more friendly rate within a month or so.

Arizona Diamondbacks—Jesse Crain/J.P. Howell: Shin-Soo Choo is the best fit for the club, but a bidding war with the Rangers could be looming for his services, which Arizona would surely loose. Instead, reallocating those resources towards two premier bullpen arms would both save money and support their emerging staff. The duo of Crain and Howell would give the Diamondbacks a very formidable late inning group to match the late-game units in LA and San Francisco.

Tampa Bay Rays—Corey Hart: They’ve said that they do not have interest in the rehabbing former Brewer, but revisiting him would be a smart move. He provides a power option to support Evan Longoria and Wil Myers in the heart of the order and can play both first base and right field, which gives Joe Maddon the type of lineup flexibility he loves to deploy. What’s more, he won’t be overly expensive due to injury concerns, so he fits right into the pocket where the Rays like to stay—the shallow part.

Cleveland Indians—Grant Balfour: The secret strength of the Indians last year was a deep bullpen, but with Chris Perez, Joe Smith and Matt Albers all departed, that stash is depleted. Balfour has been through the trials of the postseason the previous two seasons, and would provide a much needed (yet very ironic) calming presence to the Indians as they look to get over the hump and keep up with the Tigers.

Los Angeles Angels—Matt Garza: While the A’s and Rangers have been busy, the Angels have been waiting to find the right way to make an impact add to their starting pitching. Yesterday’s trade brought some young talent to the mix, but this is a team in need of a stragetic impact add. During the past two winters, they have only achieved half of that equation,  but bringing Garza aboard would give them one of the best #3 pitchers in baseball (finally back in the role that he made his name in with the Rays behind James Shields and David Price) and would give them a much needed boost in the match up department from the mound behind Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. He won’t make an 18-game difference by himself, but at this point, the Angels have to either keep adding or blow it up…and option B isn’t in play.

For more on the free agent market (and where these guys likely do end up), follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan

Robinson-Cano

The status quo was shattered in the American League East a year ago. After years of the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays fighting for supremacy, the Baltimore Orioles burst out of the cellar and took the fight to them all. By the end of the summer, the Orioles had fought their way to the playoffs for the first time since 1997, while the rest of the division was uncharacteristically met with very uncertain winters ahead of them.

The Yankees won the division, but were faced with a bumpy offseason fueled by an ugly sweep out of the American League Championship Series, new steroid allegations around Alex Rodriguez and uncertain rehabs from both Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. The Red Sox rebuild went into overdrive, with a new manager and a second restructuring the team in three years. The Rays were once again faced with cautious moves to rebuild from within, and the Blue Jays only had the most aggressive offseason in recent memory.

2012 FINISH (*Wild Card winner)

1. New York Yankees (95-67)

2. Baltimore Orioles (93-69)*

3. Tampa Bay Rays (90-72)

4. Boston Red Sox (73-89)

5. Toronto Blue Jays (69-93)

The scene that emerges from this all is what should be the most competitive division in baseball. It will be a division that features both Cy Young winners from last summer (David Price and R.A. Dickey), as well as some of the biggest prospects in the game, for each team. It will be a battle that sorts out if the cardiac Orioles can channel that same magic again from its maturing core of young stars, or if the all-in Blue Jays, at all costs winter will pay out. Meanwhile, can the Yankees push a bit more out of its roster that’s reached three of the last four ALCS?

All Division Team

Catcher: Matt Wieters, Orioles

First Base: Mark Teixeira, Yankees

Second Base: Robinson Cano, Yankees

Third Base: Evan Longoria, Rays

Shortstop: Jose Reyes, Blue Jays

Left Field: Brett Gardner, Yankees

Center Field: Adam Jones, Orioles

Right Field: Jose Bautista, Blue Jays

Designated Hitter: David Ortiz, Red Sox

Price went 20-5 and struck out 205 in route to his first Cy Young last year.

Price went 20-5 and struck out 205 in route to his first Cy Young.

Starting Pitcher: David Price, Rays

Starting Pitcher: CC Sabathia, Yankees

Starting Pitcher: RA Dickey, Blue Jays

Starting Pitcher: Josh Johnson, Blue Jays

Righty Relief: David Robertson, Yankees

Lefty Relief: Darren Oliver, Blue Jays

Closer: Mariano Rivera, Yankees

Top 10

  1. Robinson Cano, Yankees
  2. David Price, Rays
  3. Evan Longoria, Rays
  4. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
  5. CC Sabathia, Yankees
  6. Jose Reyes, Blue Jays
  7. Adam Jones, Orioles
  8. Mark Teixeira, Yankees
  9. Mariano Rivera, Yankees
  10. Curtis Granderson, Yankees

Lineup

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

The margin is close, but the Jays will take the edge over the Yankees due to both the questionable health of the Yankees in the immediate and long-term. The maturation of Brett Lawrie and the return to health of Jose Bautista makes T-Dot a gauntlet to get through. The Orioles will be greatly improved if both Nolan Reimold and Nick Markakis are healthy at once, and the Rays will be a threat as well if Wil Myers makes his expected debut impact at some point.

Jones hit a career-best 32 home runs and drove in 82 for the surging O's in 2012.

Jones hit a career-best 32 home runs and drove in 82 for the surging O’s.

Heart of the Lineup

  1. Yankees (Cano/Teixeira/Granderson)
  2. Blue Jays (Bautista/Encarnacion/Rasmus)
  3. Orioles (Jones/Wieters/Davis)
  4. Rays (Zobrist/Longoria/Joyce)
  5. Red Sox (Ortiz/Napoli/Victorino)

There’s still no break going through the heart of the Yankee order. Cano, Granderson and Tex hit a total of 100 home runs and drove in 284 runs a year ago. Mike Napoli is a dead pull hitting terror that could own the Green Monster in Fenway. The support he provides alone makes the Sox far more dangerous. Chris Davis somehow hit a very quiet 33 home runs a year ago, and Adam Jones is just scratching his surface.

Table Setters

  1. Red Sox (Ellsbury/Pedroia)
  2. Blue Jays (Reyes/Cabrera)
  3. Yankees (Ichiro/Jeter)
  4. Rays (Jennings/Escobar)
  5. Orioles (McLouth/Hardy)

Health is always a reasonable concern, but the potential impact of Ellsbury and Pedroia atop the Boston order is devastating. Both could be good for 20 homers and at least 20 steals. However, in theory, both Melky Cabrera and Jose Reyes are former batting champs, and that’s a tremendous duo of base runners to put on in front of the big Toronto bats. Desmond Jennings has a chance to make an in-prime Carl Crawford like impact in Tampa this year.

Bench

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

The Orioles killed teams with the numbers game a year ago, and still have the AL’s deepest positional roster. Nate McLouth, Wilson Betemit, Danny Valencia and Reimold offer a ridiculous amount of versatility that Buck Showalter will use frequently. The Rays will have a rotational option of Kelly Johnson, Sean Rodriguez and Luke Scott available to fit into their very balanced approach as well.

Rotation

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

David Price is far from on his own without James Shields. By the summer’s end, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb will have much bigger names than they enter with. The Jays biggest focus was to add starting pitching and the additions of a brand new one through three to their rotation in Dickey, Johnson and Buerhle represents the most significant change to any staff in baseball. A healthy return of John Lackey could make the Red Sox very dangerous as well.

Dickey is the fourth reigning Cy Young winner to be traded after winning the honor (Cone, Martinez, Clemens).

Dickey is the fourth reigning Cy Young winner to be traded after winning the honor (Cone, Martinez, Clemens).

1-2 Punch

  1. Blue Jays (Dickey/Johnson)
  2. Rays (Price/Hellickson)
  3. Yankees (Sabathia/Kuroda)
  4. Red Sox (Lester/Dempster)
  5. Orioles (Hammel/Chen)

Hiroki Kuroda has been one of the most underrated hurlers in baseball over the last two years. He finished eighth in the AL in ERA last year, and finally gave the Yanks a viable #2 behind Sabathia. Speaking of ERA, in Price and Hellickson, the Rays anchor their rotation with two of the top six best in the category a year ago. Price’s 2.56 was tops in the league, while Hellickson came in sixth at 3.10.

Bullpen

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

The Orioles 29-9 record in one run games was anchored by a nearly impenetrable bullpen. Jim Johnson saved 51 of 54 games, and overall the secondary arms had five ERA’s under 3.00 and three winners of five or more games. The Red Sox have a potentially overwhelming pen, with both Joel Hanahran and Andrew Bailey being former All-Star closers. The Rays Fernando Rodney will look to follow up his breakthrough season, which with finished him 5th in the Cy Young vote.

Defense

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

JJ Hardy, Wieters, Jones and Markakis are all owners of Gold Gloves for the O’s, and Manny Machado is a third baseman playing with shortstop range. The Rays aren’t far behind, with Longoria, Loney, Escobar and Zobrist comprising a formidable unit behind their strong pitching staff.

Speed

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

With Rajai Davis, Reyes, Lawrie, Rasmus and Bonafacio all on the bases for the Jays, they won’t be afraid to push for the extra base. Both Reyes and Bonaficio could push for 40+ steals, hitting back-to-back in the lineup. The Yankees have become the ultimate station to station lineup in baseball, although the return of Brett Gardner (96 steals from 2010-11) will finally provide them with a legit stolen base threat again.

Manager

  1. Joe Maddon,
  2. Buck Showalter
  3. Joe Girardi
  4. John Farrell
  5. John Gibbons

While Showalter deservedly won the AL Manager of the Year for the 24 game improvement his Orioles took on a year ago, but Maddon is still tops. He’s kept the Rays in the mix of the division every year despite a nearly annual major loss to his limited budget roster. John Farrell was traded for from the Blue Jays to steady the rebuilding effort for the Red Sox.

Farrell returns to Boston, where he was pitching coach from 2007-10, to straighten out a house in ruins.

Farrell returns to Boston, where he was pitching coach from 2007-10, to straighten out a house in ruins.

Finances

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

The Yankees are kings of baseball’s financial hill, but they are in both a push to cut payroll to avoid a pending luxury tax and to have the funds need to keep Cano in pinstripes after this season. Boston has been strategic in rebuilding their roster, while the Jays took on $146 million in salary with their trade with the Marlins.

Impact Additions

  1. RA Dickey (Blue Jays from Mets)
  2. Jose Reyes (Blue Jays from Marlins)
  3. Josh Johnson (Blue Jays from Marlins)
  4. Joel Hanahran (Red Sox from Pirates)
  5. Mike Napoli (Red Sox from Rangers)

Notice a trend? The core of the changes to the division as a whole really is due to the Jays aggressive restructuring of their roster. They sacrificed both prospects and payroll to reinvent themselves with two deals to land Dickey and the majority of the Marlins core a year ago. Boston also will open with five new everyday players and five new pitchers as well.

Leap Forward Candidates

  1. Matt Moore, Rays
  2. Jeremy Hellickson, Rays
  3. Will Middlebrooks, Red Sox
  4. Manny Machado, Orioles
  5. Desmond Jennings, Rays

Once again, the Rays have another function youth movement on the verge of carrying them ahead. Moore and Hellickson are the future of the team’s greatest asset, it’s pitching. The Orioles brought up Machado the third overall pick in the 2010 draft just before his 20th birthday, and he responded by hitting .262 with seven homers in his first 51 games.

Rookies/Prospects to Watch

  1. Dylan Bundy (Pitcher, Orioles—AAA)
  2. Wil Myers (Right field, Rays—AAA)
  3. Xander Bogearts (Shortstop, Red Sox—AA)
  4. Gary Sanchez (Catcher, Yankees—AA)
  5. Chris Archer (Pitcher, Rays—AAA)

Prospect list in the AL East looks like a who’s who of everybody’s Top 100 list. Bundy, Myers and Bogearts are Top 5 prospects in the game that could make impacts on the MLB level this year. Bundy began the season in Single-A, but reached the Majors by September of last year. Myers was the center of one of the biggest trades of the offseason, and profiles to be a major part of the Tampa effort by mid-summer.

2013 PREDICTIONS

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

There’s a lot of reason to believe that last year was a fluke for the Orioles. If you look at their amazing results in close games, as well as the comet-like rise they took last season, it would seem that there would have to be some return to reality this year. But that’s the glass half empty approach, and there’s more to it than that. The O’s have a roster that hasn’t peaked, and has a chance to be even healthier this season. Adding experience to the resolve and talent they showed last year will make them a more formidable group this year.

Make no mistake, this doesn’t mean the Blue Jays efforts were a failure. They will be a much improved team on all fronts, and will make a push for October. However, they are still a club of peaks and valleys. For as strong as their rotation should be, the bullpen still is far from a certain proposition. And defensively, they could be very limited in support behind the staff. The “out hit em” approach is possible, but we’ve seen that not work many other places.

Overall, this was a division that had a whopping three teams win 90 games a year ago, and there’s good reason to believe it does that again. it’s going to be a very strong division, which should end up with a separation from first to last of as few as five games. Don’t count the Yankees out, as they have a lot of offensive to lean on, and they will get healthier as the year goes on. The Red Sox aren’t a prototypical last place team either, but somebody has to end up there. And as for the Rays: they’re a sleeper pick to flip this entire scenario around. If you can pitch, you always have a chance, and they can do that. The division will send two teams to the postseason as usual, and the fight for who it will be could take all summer to sort out.

For more on the previews and the men that are bringing them to reality, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan

So far this year in the CHEAP SEATS, the focus has been on breaking down the best units in baseball.  When we last left off, the best pitching units at the back end of games were broken down, but now it’s time to move to front end and the spotlight arms of the game. As last year’s World Series match up proved, a great starting rotation is the difference between night and day in a season. And to make this list, it takes more than just a great number one; having a great 2-4 is huge, and even a fifth arm can make all the difference.

Lee Hamels Halladay

Here is the difference between the cream, and the crop…the best starting staffs in 2013’s upcoming baseball offering. And remember, pitchers and catcher report a month from today. Spring’s saving mercy gets underway in the winter.

 

 

1. Washington Nationals: Top to bottom there’s none better, because even their bottom is better than half the team’s baseball’s top. Stephen Strasberg is on the verge of being the league’s best and is good enough to make a 20-game winner in Gio Gonzalez to second billing. Add in a potentially resurgent Dan Haren, along with two of the most underrated arms in either league in Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler, and you’ve got a problem everyday of the week in DC.

2. Detroit Tigers: There’s a lot more to the Tigers than Justin Verlander (who’s averaged 20 wins the last four seasons). None of their starters have seen their 30th birthday yet. Max Scherzer actually struck out two more batters per nine innings than Verlander. Doug Fister and Anibal Sanchez are tremendous options to be 3rd and 4th arms, while Drew Smyly and Rick Porcello are only 23 years old. This will be a strong collection for years to come.

3. Philadelphia Phllies: For everything that the rotation didn’t do last year, there’s still so much potential here. Cole Hamels has become a perennial Cy Young candidate, and nobody pitched to more tough luck than Cliff Lee did last year (30 starts, 3.16 ERA, but first win on July 4th). Add back a healthy Doc Halladay to the mix and this is as devastating of a top end rotation as there is, still.

4. San Francisco Giants: The strength of the World Champions is based in just how many arms can step up to be the top dog at any time. Matt Cain came into his own as an elite hurler last year, while Ryan Vogelsong and Madison Bumgartner both sported 3.37 ERAs, while winning a combined 30 games. Barry Zito showed a renaissance in the NLCS and World Series, and if Tim Lincecum can manage a similar effort during his contract push this summer, no reason to not at least pencil them back into another October.

5. Los Angeles Dodgers: With the Zack Greinke signing, the Dodgers locked up the toughest 1-2 punch in all of baseball. Kershaw has 35 wins and a 2.40 ERA over the last two years, and Josh Beckett should serve to be an important veteran axis in the middle of the rotation. And they currently have quality options abound for the bottom of the mix, with Aaron Harang, Chris Capuano, Ted Lilly, Chad Billingsley and Korean star Ryu Hyun-jin all options to round out a suddenly uber-talented mix.

Landing a reigning Cy Young winner is huge (and rare), but there's a lot more to the new Jays rotation than just RA's knuckler.

Landing a reigning Cy Young winner is huge (and rare), but there’s a lot more to the new Jays rotation than just RA’s knuckler.

6. Toronto Blue Jays: Of all the moves the Jays made to try to climb out of the bottom of the AL East, their aggressiveness to finally fix their horrible starting pitching should pay out the most. They put together a diverse group in finesse workhorses R.A. Dickey and Mark Buerhle, while Josh Johnson has one of the livest arms in the game, and Ricky Romero become a huge bounce back candidate as a fifth starter.

7. Oakland A’s: Billy Beane outdid himself putting together a group that came to age in a hurry last summer, and hijacked the AL West. Jarrod Parker and Tom Millone (both acquired in offseason trades) both won 13 games, and long with AJ Griffin (7-1, 3.05 ERA in 15 starts) all could make a claim to best rookie arm in the baseball, and if Brett Anderson can stay healthy to anchor the group, they’ll be a force once again.

8. Cincinnati Reds: It’s all about balance on the Reds understatedly good rotation. Cuerto has been among the NL ERA leaders the last two seasons, and Latos found recaptured his old form in his first year in Cincy. And if they hold true to their plan, and can successfully convert Arodis Chapman into a starter, this will be a very potent group.

9. Tampa Bay Rays: Not many teams could lose Matt Garza and James Shields in back to back years and stay relevant, but there’s also no other team with the young arms of the Rays. Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore and the quietly good Alex Cobb make up the meat of the group, but it really doesn’t hurt to have 2012’s Cy Young winner David Price entering his prime atop it all.

10. Arizona Diamondbacks: A gut of rich young pitching gives the D’Backs is impressive. Ian Kennedy has won 35 games since the start of 2011, and Wade Miley reached All-Star level as a rookie. Add in the potential return of Daniel Hudson from Tommy John Surgery by mid-summer, and the addition of Brandon McCarthy as well, and this is a rotation that will cause a lot of trouble.

Just A Bit Outside: Yankees, Braves, White Sox

 

For more in real-time on these starters starting up their year, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan

Sergio Romo

The CHEAP SEATS breakout of the best units in baseball continues today, with a look at the best bullpens in baseball. This isn’t just the best closer, with a few other guys, but the teams that can make a window of opportunity really small to a get a W. There are some really strong groups of late arms coming into the league, with potentially some of the best units not even finishing among the Top 10 coming in. With Rafael Soriano still looking for a home as well, there’s still a huge piece that could change the fortune of a few of these groups, as well as a few not mention among them yet.

But this is what it is, and the series continues with a spotlight on the pitchers that don’t stand it as often…until the pressure is on highest.

 

1. Atlanta Braves: The only bullpen that can truly turn leads into six inning wins, and it got deeper this offseason. Craig Kimbrel has been the best closer in the game for his first two season in the game, converting 89 of 100 save opportunities, while opposing hitters have a .151 average against him. Eric O’Flaherty has 1.95 ERA over the last two seasons and Jonny Venters has struck out 258 batters in 229 pro innings. Add on Jordan Walden, who saved 32 games as a rookie All-Star in 2011, and you’ve got a devastating group.

2. San Francisco Giants: You’d think they would take a step backwards losing Brian Wilson at the beginning of the year, but not a skip was missed up and down their pen. That’s a testament to the game’s most balanced pen, with Sergio Romo handing in his second consecutive sub-2.00 ERA year, with 18 total saves. Santiago Casilla, Jeremy Affelt and George Kontos all handed in ERA’s below 3.00 as well.

3. Baltimore Orioles: The O’s weren’t the best late-inning team in the game just due to a knack for walk off hits. Their pen was the secret strength of the team, led by Jim Johnson, who saved 51 games while walking just 15 batters in over 60 innings. Pedro Strop, Darren O’Day, Luis Ayala and Troy Patton were the ultimate support group and 18 won total games.

4. Oakland A’s: Whether it was Ryan Cook (14 saves, 21 holds, .166 average against) or Grant Balfour (24 saves, 15 holds, .160 average against) closing games, the entire path through the late innings against the A’s was hell. With their entire pen returning, the American League’s best total pitching staff will be trouble again.

5. St. Louis Cardinals: Once again, the Cardinals’ staff stepped up big late in the season. Jason Motte tied for the NL lead in saves with 42, and Edward Mujica put up a 1.03 ERA after being acquired from the Marlins. Randy Choate (.158 average vs. left-handers) and Trevor Rosenthal (15 strikeouts in 8.5 playoff innings) could both be huge additions over the course of the full season in 2013.

6. Los Angeles Dodgers: Around their big name additions, the Dodgers have done a good job off filling in the details as well, starting with a solid bullpen. Brandon League will resume his role as a full-time closer, after saving 37 games in 2011. 2012’s closer Kenley Jansen, who struck out 13.7 batters per 9 innings, will open as setup man, and with Matt Guerrier, JP Howell and Ronald Belisario in the mix as well, there will be no shortage of situational arms available as well.

7. Boston Red Sox: There may be no team with more “what if” talent on their bullpen mix than the Bo Sox. Joel Hanahran (36 saves, 2.72 ERA in Pittsburgh) was their biggest acquisition of the winter, but if Daniel Bard, Andrew Bailey and Koji Uehara can also find their old forms (and health), this could be the group at the top of the list by next year.

Aroldis Chapman makes the Reds group a top 3 pen collection, but even without him, Cincy still has a ton of strong late inning arms.

Aroldis Chapman makes the Reds group a top 3 pen collection, but even without him, Cincy still has a ton of strong late inning arms.

8. Cincinnati Reds: Another group that has a pretty big “if” attached to it. With Aroldis Chapman, this is a top 3 unit, but since the plan is to move him to rotation currently, it slides some. Even without him available daily, it is still a strong unit led by Jonathan Broxton, Jose Arrendando and one of baseball’s best left-handed setup arms, Sean Marshall.

9. San Diego Padres: A great unit that makes a so-so club a lot better on its own. Despite losing Heath Bell and Mike Adams the last two years, the Padres still have 10 relievers that averaged better than a strikeout an inning. When he gets a chance, Huston Street was lights out, converting 96% of saves chances with a 1.85 ERA.

10. Tampa Bay Rays: Annual guarantee in baseball is the Rays will have a dynamic bullpen. It will be needed more than ever, with a rotation thinned out after trading it’s workhorse, James Shields, and setup man Wade Davis. However, Fernando Rodney (0.60 ERA and 48 saves in 74 innings), along with Jake McGee and Joel Peralta are a strong base for the next wave of certain to follow up and comers that will join the group to build off of.

 

Just Missed: Kansas City Royals, New York Yankees, Arizona Diamondbacks.

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.