2010 AL East Preview: Sox, Yankees reloaded

As Spring Training finally dawns, we are looking at two teams at the top of the division with significant turnover from this offseason. The Yankees have shed several older, oft-injured players and added a powerful left-handed bat in OF Curtis Granderson. For their part, Boston has decided to focus on run prevention with the signing of John Lackey and even sacrificed OBP in order to improve their team defense in this “bridge year”. The Tampa Rays have another year of development and polish on their young and talented core. Meanwhile, Toronto has gone into rebuilding mode with the trade of Roy Halladay to the Phillies, and the Orioles’ youth movement is on the cusp of paying dividends. What can we expect to see in 2010?

Predicted 2010 Finish

Yankees 101 61 0.622 855 667
Red Sox 98 64 0.605 849 686
Rays 89 73 0.551 797 719
Blue Jays 81 81 0.500 730 730
Orioles 78 84 0.481 730 758

New York Yankees

The Yankees rode their offensive juggernaut to 103 wins last season, and boast a lineup which is unmatched in baseball. Combining the premier talents of Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira along with a very deep lineup, they figure to continue to score runs by the bushel in 2010. The additions of righty-killer Curtis Granderson and on-base machine Nick Johnson should be enough to absorb the loss of Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui while slightly improving the injury risk associated with the team. Having added Javier Vazquez to a rotation which already features CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, the Bronx Bombers look to be stronger than ever.

If the Yankees have a weakness, it would have to be in team depth, especially in the field. The aging Randy Winn and young Ramiro Pena are excellent defenders, but won’t be strong contributors at the plate. Should one or more starters go down for any extended period, this could create a big problem. Francisco Cervelli can handle a lot of playing time at catcher and hold his own offensively, and Jaime Hoffman provides some extra insurance at the outfield corners. The pitching depth is much stronger, with Chad Gaudin, Joba Chamberlain and Philip Hughes all vying for the 5th rotation spot. There are a number of quality arms in this bullpen as well.

Key players: The Yankees’ fifth starter will be important to the the kind of season they have. If one of the three candidates breaks through, it could mean well over 100 wins. However, if none of them surfaces and there’s an injury to Andy Pettite, for example, it could be very costly. On the offensive side, we know what most of these players are capable of, but we don’t know what Brett Gardner will look like as a regular. If he can continue playing excellent defense and hold his own in an every day role, it will make a huge difference to this team.

Boston Red Sox

Despite the failure of their rotation depth and the disappearance of David Ortiz, the Red Sox finished with 95 wins last season. The offense did well in scoring, but was inconsistent for long stretches, and completely disappeared in the ALDS last year. The Sox lineup is strong and deep, with power hitting distributed more evenly throughout the lineup. They do not have quite the same caliber lineup as the Yankees, but it seems like everyone plays at least two positions, and their bench is excellent with guys like Mike Lowell, Jeremy Hermida and Jed Lowrie riding the pine. Terry Francona will again have his hands full juggling so many players and their egos; if they win, this should be a non-issue. But if the losses start piling up, there’s no telling what could happen.

It is hard to overstate the improvement the Sox have made in the field this offseason. After finishing third-worst in Major League Baseball with a .679 defensive efficiency ratio, Theo Epstein decided to overhaul the Red Sox leather, bringing in two historically good defenders in 3B Adrian Beltre and CF Mike Cameron. Our projections show the Sox trailing the Yankees in runs allowed, but there have been no corrections for the defensive improvements made, so I would expect that the final standings will be a bit tighter than we’ve shown here.

Key players: This lineup, as strong as it is, looks very different with a productive David Ortiz in it. If Papi gets back to being Papi (which he did for most of the end of last year), Boston will score more than enough runs. Among the pitchers, the key is probably Clay Buchholz. If he can blossom into a solid starter, the Red Sox could be in for a very fun season. Should he falter, Boston goes back to a rotation with a questionable Daisuke Matsuzaka and a merely solid Tim Wakefield in it.

Tampa Bay Rays

After a rather hopeful 2008 season, the Rays were the darling of sabermetricians everywhere. Their youth and potential seemed to forecast another playoff berth, but they finished a disappointing 84-78 due to injuries and some disappointing seasons from key players such as Scott Kazmir, Andy Sonnanstine, B.J. Upton and Pat Burrell. The team’s regulars are largely returning, with RF Gabe Gross being replaced by Matt Joyce. This is a team of young players reaching their prime years together, and all it would take is a breakout season or two to push them over the top. The positional depth is great, and the bullpen appears to be strong. GM Andrew Friedman traded Kazmir to make room for the young pitchers, bringing Sean Rodriguez back as a valuable reserve.

Tampa is knocking on the door, but they’ll have to beat at least one of New York or Boston in order to make the playoffs, so they’ll have their work cut out for them. They haven’t overtaken those big budget guys yet, but they have plenty of young talent coming through the pipeline, e.g. Desmond Jennings and Jeremy Hellickson.

Key players: Of the four “disappointments” mentioned above, Upton stands out as the one man on whom the Rays must rely upon again. The Rays’ rotation will rest upon the performances of David Price, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis. At least two of the three need to turn in solid performances and a lot of innings.

Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays have clearly gone into rebuilding mode, trading away Halladay and swapping shortstops with Boston over the winter. They also lost Rod Barajas at catcher, and signed John Buck to do the dirty work there. I do like their pitching depth, and I think their staff will be fine; the big question is if they will have enough offense. Toronto looks to give ample playing time to youngsters such as Travis Snider and Brett Wallace this season, and that usually doesn’t line up too well with winning. However, if they all start smoking the ball together, all bets are off.

Key players: If the Jays are to even have a chance this season, they’ll need stellar seasons all around. Vernon Wells appears finally to be healthy, and as the team’s leader, he’ll need to take it to another level. The Jays need their young rotation to step it up, and Dustin McGowan, back from a year lost to injury, could play a big role. McGowan’s stuff can be dominating, and he has the best chance of making up for the loss of Halladay.

Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles have done much to improve their pitching this offseason, but it probably still isn’t enough. Kevin Millwood is a solid arm, but my guess is that he won’t be very good in the AL East. There are plenty of promising young hitters on this club, but there are still gaping holes in the infield. They’re going to have to do better than Garrett Atkins and Miguel Tejada at the corners and Cesar Izturis at short if they want to compete. To be fair, Atkins and Tejada are just temporary placeholders for the departed Aubrey Huff and Melvin Mora. The pitching staff is pretty easily the worst in the division, and they’ll need strides from their younger guys. The Orioles have a reasonable closer in Mike Gonzalez and fair depth in their bullpen, as long as they don’t get overworked by a rotation that is constantly exiting games early (a common problem with younger pitchers). This season should be one of evaluation and forward thinking for Batimore, trying to gauge when the window might open for them to reach the playoffs in this competitive environment.

Key players: Young catcher Matt Wieters has all the potential in the world, and Baltimore will need his full contribution if they want to compete in this division. The Orioles’ rotation will feature at least two new starters in Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz. Their progress will fuel any success the Orioles have this season.

Get ready, because baseball is just around the corner again.


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