Two on Two: 2006 AL East Preview
Today, the Two on Two previews move from one coast to the other (sorry, Texas). Left to right across your computer screen. With us today to discuss the AL East are Cliff Corcoran of Bronx Banter and Patrick Sullivan of The House That Dewey Built. Cliff and Patrick (aka Sully) joined us last year and are the first pair to repeat as guests in our series.
When it comes to the AL East, some might call such a chat a review rather than a preview. Pull up a chair and find out what the four of us have to say about the Yankees and Red Sox. Oh, and the other three teams, too.
Rich: Last year, Boston and New York finished the regular season tied, yet New York was awarded the division title due to winning their season series. Fair or unfair?
Cliff: As it turned out it was irrelevant. Neither team got home field advantage during the ALDS because Boston lost the tiebreaker with the Yankees and was forced to settle for the Wild Card and the Yankees lost another tiebreaker with the also 95-67 Los Angeles de Los Angeles de Anaheim. Then both teams lost in the first round. In fact, the only real impact it had, other than bragging rights for fans of the now eight-consecutive-time AL East Champion Yankees was that the Red Sox were able to claim Hee Seop Choi off waivers before the Yankees got their shot because the tiebreaker put the Sox ahead of the Yanks in the waiver order.
Patrick: I sort of just thought the season series gave them a seeding tiebreaker (so to speak). The benefits of determining a champion the traditional way, with a playoff, are not worth jeopardizing teams' pitching staffs when both have already qualified anyway. But then, I am a fan of the team that lost the tiebreaker.
Rich: I wonder how Joe McCarthy, Miller Huggins, and Casey Stengel feel about running AL East pennants up the flagpole at Yankee Stadium?
Cliff: You know, I've been at the last three home openers and I'm not sure they actually do that. I think they only run up AL and World Champion flags, but I'm not 100 percent sure.
Patrick: An AL East championship is grounds for a Kevin Millar hoe-down up here.
Cliff: Not anymore.
Cliff: For both of us. If only he went to the NL.
Rich: OK, now that we have settled last year's score, let's take a look at how the AL East is shaping up this year.
Patrick: Well, I think the Yanks and Sox are the definite class of the division again, but Toronto is not far behind. Boston has a wider variance in outcomes both to the upside and the down, but New York looks more solid at this point to me.
Cliff: Yeah, I don't think much has changed. The Yanks and Sox are very tight, they'll likely finish a close one-two, but either could collapse. Toronto, despite making a lot of noise, isn't meaningfully better, and the Orioles will disappoint anyone who expects them to win more than 75 games. If anything's changed, it's that the Devil Rays suddenly have a pretty nifty offense, which actually isn't all that different from the second half of 2005.
Bryan: It's been a long, long while since the division has had any change, Cliff. Is the philosophy we saw from the Blue Jays this winter going to help them do anything but draw more fans?
Cliff: There was a philosophy there? All I saw them do is spend money. But to answer your question, no.
Patrick: Cliff and I disagree on the Jays. I am not sure how an 88-win Pythag team like the 2005 Jays makes the changes they did and doesn't make some real noise in the division.
Cliff: The thing that's most overlooked about the 2006 Jays is the loss of Orlando Hudson. Having a healthy Roy Halladay for a full season will go a long way, but their bullpen and the remainder of their rotation, especially Mr. Gustavo Chacin will see a significant regression as a result of both natural correction (most of the pen was way over it's head last year), and due to the loss of Hudson's defense behind them. That will reduce their run prevention and cut into that impressive Pythagorean showing.
Patrick: Fair points...but a full year of Halladay and the additions more than make up Chacin's regression and Hudson's absence. Also, Jason Frasor, Vinny Chulk and Justin Speier are all live arms setting up B.J. Ryan. Scott Schoeneweis is a pretty good LOOGY too.
Rich: Wow, Chacin hasn't gotten this much press since his birth announcement!
Cliff: Chulk's K/9 dropped to 4.88 last year and Schoeneweis is an established mediocrity (career: 5.02 ERA, 5.13 K/9, 3.52 BB/9). A.J. Burnett is already hurt. Troy Glaus was a bat they needed, but other than him and Ryan, whom I view as a guy headed for a collapse just due to his mechanics, I don't see much added value.
Rich: I'm not suggesting that Toronto has caught and passed the Yankees and Red Sox, but I wouldn't dismiss them either. Cliff, was that you really saying that "all Toronto does is spend money?"
Cliff: Yeah yeah, who is the Yankee fan to talk? I get it. But where's the plan in what Toronto did this offseason? They overpaid wildly for the initial boys and two of their four major acquisitions have nasty injury histories. Besides which, why throw money at Bengie Molina when they had a smart inexpensive option with Gregg Zaun?
Patrick: I don't dispute that their plan is a bit tough to discern. But I am really just concerned with their 2006 chances at this point, and they look pretty good to me.
Rich: I thought the Yankees signed Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, no?
Cliff: We're not talking about the Yankees, we're talking about the Blue Jays. I don't work for the Yankees, you know. I'll tell you what I do like about the Jays going into the season. Their duel platoons in the outfield corners (Frank Catalanotto and Reed Johnson in left, Alexis Rios and Eric Hinske in right), is a fantastic way of maximizing their resources. That is, if Hinske can actually play the outfield.
Bryan: It's hard not to like that whole offense, but I agree that Hinske in right and Hudson not at second will do damage to their defense. In a long season it's the little things that make the difference, and a decline in defense and lack of depth might be what kills Toronto.
Patrick: Sure I'd agree with that. I happen to think they will come in third, but I also think a division title is just as likely as a sub-80 win season.
Rich: I don't think Toronto will be 16-31 in one-run games this year. How much better they will be than last year, I'm not sure. But they won't be worse.
Bryan: One team many are choosing to drop a bit in the standings -- though I don't necessarily agree -- is the Red Sox. Is this a transition year in Boston, or has management found a way to mix youth with a winner in 2006?
Patrick: I think Boston has done a nice job putting a good team on the field for 2006 while making sure their future remains bright. They have added two cost-controlled mid-20's contributors in Josh Beckett and Coco Crisp and two other young role players in Hee Seop Choi and Wily Mo Pena. With respect to whether or not they have found a winner, if they can win 95 games with Curt Schilling posting a 77 ERA+ and Keith Foulke a 75 ERA+, then they will be just fine.
Cliff: Beckett's injury history concerns me as much as Burnett's, as does the fact that both are leaving that roomy pitchers park in Miami for high-run environments. But as I said up top, I think the Red Sox will hang with the Yankees all year. What I find most interesting about Boston right now is that they have tremendous depth on the bench and in the bullpen, but some shaky starters, primarily on the left side of the infield and in the rotation.
Rich: Hmmm. I think Boston's starting rotation is actually pretty good. They go six deep by my math. I would take Beckett over any starter in the division this side of Halladay and Randy Johnson. I think he will be just fine. Remember, he is additive to the team that won 95 games last year.
Bryan: I think Beckett is on the short list of AL Cy Young candidates, but I also think this team will be better once they realize Jon Lester over David Wells, Craig Hansen over Keith Foulke, and Dustin Pedroia over Alex Gonzalez.
Patrick: I don't see much evidence that Lester is ready to supplant Wells. I do think we will see Hansen at some point this year and I am not sure on Pedroia. But I am comfortable that Alex Gonzalex can at least replicate what Edgar Renteria contributed to last year's club.
Rich: I wouldn't hold it against the Red Sox this year that they have one of the best groups of prospects in all of baseball. These guys will just make Boston that much stronger in 2007 and beyond.
Bryan: There is no doubt about that. Boston has the brightest future of anyone in the division, I think. But in terms of 2006, I still believe the Red Sox aren't utilizing these prospects enough. I'm not faulting Boston's developmental department, which should now be lauded as one of the Majors best, but for the trust issues they still have in some youth. That could change in a few months, though.
Cliff: Agreed, I'd be surprised if Gonzalez lasts past the All-Star break and if Hansen isn't back with the big club by then. Speaking of which, the Sox should ditch J.T. Snow in favor of Choi (whom is reportedly ticketed for triple-A because he has options left) yesterday.
Patrick: The Sox have a phenomenal roster. We will see if Terry Francona can do a better job of using it then last year.
Rich: His job in terms of filling out the lineup card should be rather simple in my mind. Pena or Choi should be starting every game. Period. But they should never both start the same game.
Bryan: Let's move onto another organization with a bright future, guys, the Devil Rays. It's hard for ownership to keep telling their fans to be patient, but this winter seems to have shown there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Cliff: Everyone made a big deal about how the Yankees kept losing to the D-Rays last year, but they all ignored the fact that the Rays had one of the best offenses in baseball after the All-Star break and one of the best second-half records in the American League. That offense will only improve this season with Joey Gathright finally getting a starting job. Their pitching, however, is another story entirely.
Patrick: The Devil Rays need pitching badly. When they get a little bit, they'll be competitive. Until then, they won't. I think Scott Kazmir's progress will be interesting this season. Victor Zambrano's on the other hand, won't.
Cliff: That trade just keeps killing the Mets. They traded Jae Seo to make room for Victor Zambrano? Brutal.
Bryan: Rich's K/100P stat tells us that Kazmir's path to stardom is right around the bend. Still, Kazmir becoming an ace won't hide the fact that a rotation needs 4, or at least 3, other starters.
Cliff: I read something anecdotal about Seth McClung correcting a mechanical flaw this spring related to how he moves his glove hand through his motion that has supposedly yielded fantastic results, but I'll believe it when I see it over a full season. Second to that, Casey Fossum had solid peripherals last year, but I find it hard to believe that he's become a front-line starter.
Rich: Tampa Bay's pitchers, for the most part, are young and inexperienced. They have some good arms in the system though that should yield decent results down the road.
Bryan: And, for the first time in ages, the new Devil Rays front office makes me believe Tampa actually knows they have a lack of pitching depth. This alone speaks volumes.
Rich: Well, Bryan, the Devil Rays are likely to get a top-flight pitcher in this year's draft, which, as you so well know, is full of pitching talent.
Bryan: Yes, and I'm looking forward to them making better draft day decisions than Wade Townsend.
Patrick: Well, with the competent offense Cliff alluded to earlier and guys like Delmon Young and B.J. Upton on the way, this offense doesn't figure to slow down for years to come.
Rich: I think Tampa Bay is going to be a really fun team to watch. I would be a bit worried if I was a Baltimore fan.
Cliff: Hey, any of you guys still high on the Orioles? Heh.
Patrick: I still maintain that if Erik Bedard and Rodrigo Lopez had stayed healthy, that team could have been much, much different. Sometimes a thing or two goes wrong and the wheels come off. The O's were not as good as they started out nor were they as bad as they finished.
Rich: I agree. The Orioles spent most of the first three months last year in first place. It's too bad they didn't get paid "lap money." An injury here and an injury there, the fallout of Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, the firing of the manager, and Miguel Tejada's lack of interest and production in the second half (.276/.322/.416) was just too much to overcome.
Patrick: But I have given up the good fight. Despite upside potential from Erik Bedard and Daniel Cabrera, they stink.
Cliff: Welcome back to Earth, Sully. The Orioles are one of the worst franchises in baseball and have been for the better part of a decade.
Bryan: Things are at least looking a bit better for the O's this year, however, thanks to the loss of Sosa and Palmiero. Brian Roberts won't give the same production, but even Nick Markakis can be better than Sosa.
Rich: It makes no sense to put Markakis on the 25-man roster at this point, especially if he's not going to start. And what's up with heading north with just two catchers, when one of them (Javy Lopez) is supposedly going to play first base and DH?
Patrick: So many questions about the way the Orioles go about their business. Kevin Millar is all I have to say.
Cliff: Actually, that's the answer to the second part of Rich's question. They say Kevin Millar will be their emergency catcher. As for the first part, from what I've heard, Markakis is going to start in center. If that's true, it means that Luis Matos is out of a job, or that the soon-to-be 40-year-old Jeff Conine will be riding pine. If I'm an Orioles fan, I'm hoping for the former.
Bryan: One thing we can probably depend on, thanks to Leo Mazzone, is an improved pitching staff, even with the loss of B.J. Ryan.
Rich: Yes, our good friend JC Bradbury has studied the Mazzone Effect and concluded that, on average, Leo lowers staff ERAs by 0.60 runs per game. If that holds true this year, the O's would give up 100 fewer runs (which works out to 10 wins)!
Patrick: A part of me wants to really believe in these O's. Their offense should be good and their pitching improved with considerable upside in the lefty/righty tandem of Bedard and Cabrera I just think too much can go wrong with these guys. They rely too much on oldish players and their stars are on the decline.
Cliff: I couldn't find this offense you were talking about last year and I can't find it this year either. Mora's coming back to earth, Roberts has already done the same, hitting .274/.351/.419 after the All-Star break last year before his catastrophic elbow injury. That puts all the weight on Tejada and he showed last year that he's not willing to bear that burden. Meanwhile, Mazzone may help the starters, but their pen is falling apart. I'm bullish on Chris Ray as a closer, but Aaron Rakers just hit the 60-day DL with a labrum injury. Todd Williams is already hurt. There's just not much there for Mazzone to work with.
Rich: Well, he has worked wonders in the past with guys like Rodrigo Lopez and Kris Benson. A starting staff of Bedard, Cabrera, Bruce Chen, Lopez, and Benson isn't the worst in the league.
Bryan: It also isn't the best, which, despite a lot of failures, the Yankees have worked hard at building towards. Last year the rotation wasn't very good at all; do we think that could change this year?
Cliff: The Yankees' rotation is a mess, to be completely honest, but it's a deep mess, and that may be it's saving grace. Johnson should improve despite his age. Chien-Ming Wang could as well. Both he and Shawn Chacon have shown indications this spring that they'll be missing more bats this year -- Wang via his heater, Chacon via his nasty sea-level curve and a fine change. After that, you get into the injury concerns: Mike Mussina (elbow), Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano (any and everything). But what most folks don't realize is that the Yankees have a nice trio of 25-year-old starters in Columbus in Matt DeSalvo, Darrell Rasner (a gift from Jim Bowden) and Sean Henn. Expect one of those guys to be this year's Chien-Ming.
Rich: For the Yankees' sake, let's just hope they don't wing the wang number when they call for help in Columbus.
Patrick: Well Cliff's got all the contingency plans covered but I think the Yanks have a lot of problems on the pitching side of things. I don't see another Aaron Small coming down the pike for them. I do, however, think Randy Johnson is going to have a great year.
Cliff: Another Aaron Small won't come down the pike for anyone anytime soon. That was a major fluke.
Bryan: I'm a Johnson buyer too, but I don't even think Small himself will have a good year. The Yanks are almost a lock to be looking for pitching at the trade deadline, and you know everyone will want Eric Duncan or Phil Hughes.
Cliff: Sully, Bryan and I agree on Johnson. I also happen to think that the Kyle Farnsworth and eventually Octavio Dotel combo will give them a devastating Big Three in the bullpen, which could ease the burden on their starters, who had no room for error last year.
Rich: I like Farnsworth but will be watching closely to see if he can handle the pressure of the Big Apple. Dotel is nothing more than a crapshoot at this stage. However, it doesn't get mo better than Mariano Rivera.
Cliff: Meanwhile they've got the best offense Joe Torre's ever had.
Patrick: Well, the Yanks offense is going to pound again but I really don't get the 1,000-run offense talk I hear from the talking heads. Johnny Damon helps, but everyone in the lineup except Robinson Cano is another year past their prime. It's a very good offense, but not an historic one by any stretch.
Cliff: Certainly not, though it would be better if Bernie Williams was retired and Andy Phillips was the DH.
Rich: The Yankees have a lot of big names in their lineup. Damon, for one. I've got Coco Crisp over Damon this year in OPS+. Any takers?
Cliff: Damon will be hurt by leaving Fenway, that's for sure, and Crisp is still climbing toward his peak. I'm not going to fight you on that.
Bryan: Not from this end. But to the Yankees' credit, Damon is an improvement upon last year. The offense should be just about as good as last year, but I don't think it will be much better.
Cliff: Bryan, you wanna check Tony Womack's 2005 stats and get back to me on that one? Or John Flaherty's, for that matter?
Rich: The good news for the Yankees is that the offense doesn't need to be better. They scored the second most runs in baseball last year. This team can still mash.
Cliff: Still, runs on either side of the ball count toward the ultimate objective.
Bryan: Yes, the Yankees offense will be just fine even if it doesn't improve. It's all about whether the pitching staff can fight off a run from the Red Sox and even, yes Cliff, the Blue Jays.
Rich: Bryan just mentioned the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays. Is that how this division is going to finish (once again) this year?
Cliff: Yup, that's the top three, though I might put a larger gap between two and three than most. I'll mix it up with the bottom two, however. I think the D-Rays will slip past the O's and it will be a while before Baltimore manages to return the favor.
Patrick: Well, you guys know mine, same order as always: NYY-BOS-TOR-BAL-TB.
Bryan: I have been predicting the Sox to upend the Yanks for years. I think it will happen this year, with the Yanks finishing a close second. The Jays win 87 or so, while Tampa and Baltimore tie for last place.
Rich: I guess this really is a two on two. But it's different than I might have expected. I'm going to side with Bryan here--at least with respect to his top three teams. Boston, New York, Toronto, followed by Baltimore (one last time) and Tampa Bay.