Two on Two: AL East Preview
We kick off the 2007 Two on Two series today with the American League East. Peter Abraham is the Yankees beat writer for The Journal News and The LoHud Yankees Blog. His blog has become indispensable reading for Yankees fans. He is currently in Tampa covering the team, mixing play-by-play coverage of spring games with insightful behind-the-scenes reports, audio interviews with Joe Torre, and humorous comments. Mike Green writes for one the most popular baseball blogs out there, Batter's Box, which is largely devoted to analysis and coverage of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Rich: Thank you, Pete and Mike, for joining Sully and me today to kick off our baseball previews. We decided to come out of the blocks with the AL East. Given the fact that the AL Central sent two teams into the playoffs and one club to the World Series last year, is it still fair to say that the East is the best division in the American League?
Pete: Well, it's certainly better than the AL West. The Central is more interesting in some ways because of the great young players and the presence of Johan Santana. But the best division is the East. The Yankees and Red Sox are loaded and Toronto is far more of a presence the last two years.
Sully: I pretty much feel the same way as Pete in that the East is way better than the West and the Central and East are neck and neck. But I am going to cop out and stop short of calling the East better and say that it's just about a dead heat. Detroit, Cleveland, Minnesota and Chicago are all good teams.
Mike: I think that the Wild Card is likely to come out of the AL Central again this year. The bottom-dwellers in the AL East should be a fair bit better this year, making 95 wins a challenge for two clubs in the division to accomplish.
Sully: Pete, obviously losing Gary Sheffield and Randy Johnson in and of itself is not good but with the Yanks already laden with oldish talent, stockpiling some decent prospects didn't seem like a bad strategy at all. What were your thoughts on this past off-season for New York? What did you like and dislike?
Pete: Losing Randy Johnson and Gary Sheffield sounds bad from afar but in reality it could be little more than a blip. The Yankees won 97 games with only small contributions from Sheffield. Johnson was more effective than he is often given credit for but the Yankees have enough inventory among their starters to make up for his loss and it will come far, far cheaper. Johnson also taxed the bullpen more than the Yankees expected. This was a case of Brian Cashman selling while he could still get a good return. Cashman added seven players during the winter via trades and six of them were pitchers. It's hard to argue with that. In terms of what I disliked, I'm not sure the money invested in Kei Igawa was wise. For $46 million (including the bid) they could have signed an established MLB pitcher, not a fringy lefty from Japan. But obviously it's hard to judge a pitcher none of us has seen.
Sully: This feels strange but in order of 2006 finish it is now time to address the Jays. Mike, what did J.P Ricciardi do well this off-season and which aspects of the team would you like to have seen addressed a little more thoughtfully?
Mike: The signing of Frank Thomas means that the Jay offence should be able to match, or come close to, the Sox and Yankee offences in potency. On the downside, the Jays needed a middle infielder to accompany Aaron Hill. In signing Royce Clayton to fill the role, Ricciardi is hoping that the 37 year old Clayton can rejuvenate his career after several weak offensive and defensive seasons. Ricciardi did pick up Ray Olmedo from the Cincinnati organization during the off-season; it wouldn't surprise me to see Olmedo take the starting job at some point during the season. The back end of the rotation was an issue for the Jays, as it is for most teams. Ricciardi signed two rehabbing starters, John Thomson and Tomo Ohka, to compete for rotation slots, but the success of the team is more likely to depend on the development of the young pitchers Shaun Marcum, Casey Janssen, Dustin McGowan and Francisco Rosario.
Rich: After eight years of finishing in second place, Boston "slipped" last year and found themselves in third and watching the playoffs on TV. Theo Epstein & Co. made some significant changes during the off-season, upgrading in right field and at shortstop while adding strength to the top of the rotation. Could this be a powerhouse team in 2007?
Sully: Yeah I think the Sox will be back in their normal contending position this season. The Red Sox finished 12th in the AL in OPS from the catcher position, 10th at 2nd Base, 13th at shortstop, 12th in center field and 13th in right field. Boston got 34 combined starts from Matt Clement (6.61 ERA), Kyle Snyder (6.02), Lenny DiNardo (7.85) and Jason Johnson (7.36). Before you even factor in the additions Theo et al made, you would have to think the Sox improve on the basis of better health (Jason Varitek, Coco Crisp) and expected bounceback (Josh Beckett) alone.
Rich: How does everyone see the Orioles and Devil Rays. Can either team be a factor this year or are they just also rans?
Pete: They cannot be factors in terms of winning the division or even contending. But they can be annoying to the contenders. Tampa Bay is doing the right things to be good in 2010 or so. Baltimore I just don't understand. They should have made that trade with Anaheim involving Miguel Tejada. Spending so much on the bullpen is also fraught with risk.
Mike: I think that the Rays and Orioles will both be better than last year. The Rays have about the same odds as the 1967 Red Sox of winning. There is enough talent there to win (they might have the best outfield in baseball, and Scott Kazmir and Jeff Niemann could make a fine top of rotation), but the chance of it all being harnessed in 2007 is very small. Joe Maddon has a very difficult job, handling trying young personalities and integrating them into a cohesive whole. The Orioles' major problem last year was with their pitching staff, as they gave up almost 900 runs. I am a believer in Mazzone magic, and with the development of Adam Loewen and Daniel Cabrera, and the additions of Kris Benson, Danys Baez and Chad Bradford, they could easily chop 80-100 runs off that figure. Still, when a club's upside is 80 wins or so, it is hardly cause for celebration.
Sully: The Rays are absolutely headed in the right direction but are not there yet. Baltimore, on the other hand, I mean who the hell knows? No plan, no farm, no chance for the forseeable future. And it's too bad because Baltimore is a proud franchise with a rich tradition.
Rich: OK, let's drill down and take a closer look at each of the five teams. We'll start with the defending champs. Except for whoever is going to play first base, that lineup looks like it's better than what most of us could put together in a ten-team fantasy baseball league.
Pete: I wrote this last season and I will probably write it again this season but the Yankees could score 1,000 runs. Bobby Abreu is a great fit with his OBP and having Melky Cabrera as a reserve should keep Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui fresher and more effective. You can go on and on, the lineup is insane. The only weakness, if any, is that it's very left-handed.
Rich: Everybody thinks of a team like the Angels as aggressive on the bases when, in fact, the so-called Bronx Bombers were second in the AL in SB with the highest SB % in the league.
Mike: The Yankee offence is a sabermetrician's dream. They led the league in team OBP by 12 points over Boston last year, and look poised to repeat to me. They have enough power and speed to move baserunners around, but the strength of the club is getting them on.
Sully: Pete, what are the variables that will dictate success or failure for the Yanks this season? Of course health is always an issue but what other factors are out there? When will we see Philip Hughes and how good will he be? Does Robinson Cano stay healthy and break out this season?
Pete: Cano could be their second or third best player before the season is out. He seems in much better condition this spring, which could help him stay healthy. Their only question is starting pitching. But with Hughes on the horizon along with others, they should be OK. They will control Hughes' innings for a few months in Scranton then spring him loose around the All-Star break. Then there is the chance Roger shows up. Do you guys sees Clemens coming back to the AL? I do.
Rich: I still think Houston has the hometown edge but would not be at all surprised if Roger pits the Yankees against the Red Sox and goes to the team with the best combination of salary and wins come Memorial Day, especially if the Astros are not looking like a playoff contender. What's the scoop out of Florida, Pete?
Pete: Roger is working out with Koby at the Houston camp. Meanwhile Randy Hendricks was here in Tampa the other day and Derek Jeter sends text messages to the Rocket all the time. Based on the feel I get from Andy Pettitte, he and Clemens were tired of the lack of run support in Houston and I'm not sure Carlos Lee changes that enough. I'll admit, I hope he comes to the Yankees. He makes great copy.
Sully: You know I am hoping for the storybook homecoming and reconciliation but like Rich, think Houston has the edge.
Pete: Sully (and I grew up near Boston, I know like 16 guys named Sully), do you think the Sox can resist using Jonathan Pabelbon to close? I can't see Joel Piniero being the man for a true contender.
Sully: Well given how good Boston's lineup and starting pitching should be, I think they will have the luxury of figuring out who the closer should be on the go (I see the bullpen getting the ball with a lot of 6-2 type leads). The value proposition of having Papelbon in the rotation is straightforward - better to get 200 innings out of a premium talent that 70. Between Brendan Donnelly, Pineiro, J.C. Romero, Devern Hansack, Mike Timlin, Craig Hansen and Manny Delcarmen, there is a decent chance that by mid-May or so one of these guys will have emerged. But if it is apparent that the back end of the Sox pen is costing them, I think they will move Papelbon back to Closer by June 1.
Mike: Exactly. My money is on Donnelly to be the Sox closer. The club will be better off, as long as Papelbon can post an ERA in the 3.5-3.8 range as a starter. I think he can.
Rich: I'm not quite as sanguine as it relates Donnelly or Boston's bullpen overall. Without Papelbon closing games, I think it is the one weak link of the team. I wouldn't be comfortable handing the ball to any of those aforementioned middle relievers with the game on the line in the eighth or ninth inning on a regular basis. I wonder if either Hansen can grow up in a hurry or Bryce Cox can fly through the minors to give the Red Sox some relief, if you will. In the meantime, I'm concerned that the Boston media will have a field day blaming management for putting Paps in the rotation and not having a legitimate closer to replace him.
Pete: I have not been to Fort Myers yet but I keep hearing stories about Daisuke Matsuzaka's amazing arm strength and endless bullpen sessions. How Boston uses him (every five days or every six) will be a story to watch. He's a fascinating pitcher but you wonder if this is one case where the hype outweighs reality. It seems like every time everybody is sure about something, it's just not the case. Do you guys think he's an ace or merely a very good starter?
Mike: I wish I knew. Using Jay starters as measuring sticks, he is somewhere in the A.J. Burnett - Roy Halladay range. Even at the bottom of the range, where it is probably safest to guess that he will fit, he helps the Sox.
Sully: Wow, lukewarm on Matsuzaka are we? He's 26 and has a track record of dominance at high levels of play. I see no reason to project him to be anything short of a top-10 AL starting pitcher.
Rich: Back in December, I predicted that he would win 14-16 games, with a 3.50-4.00 ERA and 150-180 strikeouts. Call him an ace or a very good pitcher, that's an outstanding pitching line for someone in the AL East.
Mike: Sounds right to me. Speaking of uncertainty and pitchers, what do you think about Burnett? He was a .500 pitcher through his 20s despite having first-rate stuff and decent control, with injuries and emotional issues playing an important part. More of the same, or a blooming into a fully developed effective pitcher?
Rich: I've always liked Burnett. Like you said, Mike, he has great stuff. A 95+ mph fastball and a hammer curve that generate lots of strikeouts and groundballs. My kind of pitcher. With A.J., it's all about his health. If he can give Toronto 200 innings, he will be one of the most productive pitchers in the league and the five-year, $55 million contract he signed after the 2005 season will look like a bargain in today's inflated market for starters.
Sully: I love A.J. as much as the next guy but he has pitched 200 innings twice in six full seasons so I would say that it seems a bit unlikely that he will reach that mark. On the hitting side, Adam Lind seems like a guy that is ready to help immediately. Any chance of him taking Reed Johnson's job?
Mike: Not at the start of the season. The club has made it pretty clear that he will start the season in Syracuse. But, in the event of injury to any of the outfielders or to Thomas, Lind will be up in a flash (although Lind can only play leftfield, Johnson can play all three positions and Alexis Rios could play a very fine defensive centerfield if required). Lind has a sweet swing, and I expect him in Toronto for good by July at the latest.
Rich: It seems to me that Lind is ready to play at the big league level. I don't know what else there is for him to prove in the minors. The guy has hit well at every level and put up a line of .394/.496/.596 at Syracuse last year, then went .367/.415/.600 in a cup of coffee with the Jays in September. Speaking of major league ready prospects, I bet J.P. wishes he had drafted Troy Tulowitzki rather than Ricky Romero with the #6 overall pick in 2005. Toronto could sure use a shortstop.
Mike: That they can. It would have been nice if they had put up more of a fight for Julio Lugo. Bad enough to not get him, but for a divisional rival to get him at a reasonable price really hurts.
Pete: I remember the 2005 Winter Meetings, J.P. was the prom king because of all the money he spent and spent wisely, or so it seemed. It has to start to pay off this season or the ownership in Toronto will want to know why. I think the Jays will have a sense of urgency.
Sully: There are just too many problems with Toronto for me to be a real believer. While Troy Glaus, Thomas and Vernon Wells constitute a nice offensive backbone, the rest of the lineup is filled with mediocrity and really, the shortstop situation is downright inexcusable. The bullpen is excellent but the starting pitching is as thin as the lineup. Halladay and Burnett are an excellent 1-2 but 3 through 5 gets ugly quick for Toronto. So I see Toronto as a little too top heavy to be a real threat.
Rich: Second baseman Aaron Hill and right fielder Alex Rios ranked first in the AL at their respective positions in John Dewan's plus/minus system. The team's outfield defense looks terrific with Johnson, Wells, and Rios. At the same time, Toronto hit 121 HR at home and only 78 on the road. Maybe the strong offense is an illusion and perhaps the team is more about pitching and defense than not.
Mike: The home/road split was partially fluke. Rogers Center is a good home run park, but not that good. Rios has really only had one-half season of star performance, but I like his chances of keeping it up. He changed his approach at the plate, and went from being a groundball hitter and not pulling the ball to a pull fly-ball hitter. Overall, I am a little more positive than Sully about the club (heck, I live here), but I will concede that their perch on second place is tenuous.
Rich: In some ways, I feel sorry for Toronto fans. Competing in the AL East is not easy. The Blue Jays boosted payroll by more than 50% last year and just signed Wells to one of the biggest contracts in baseball history, yet the club still trails the Yankees by over $100 million and the Red Sox by tens of millions in annual compensation. The franchise is betwixt and between. The Jays are not quite good enough to make the playoffs nor so awful as to get one of the top couple of draft picks every year like Tampa Bay.
Sully: Jamie Walker, Danys Baez, Chad Bradford, Jay Payton, Aubrey Huff and Steve Trachsel. That's a lot of change and some of it positive but we are talking about a 70-win team in 2006. The wheels are spinning, but are the O's moving at all?
Rich: That Baez contract was one of the worst signings of the off-season. I don't know what they see in him but it is indicative of a lack of vision on the part of management.
Pete: Here's my question about the O's: who's running the joint? Mike Flanagan ostensibly but Peter Angelos shoots down trades and Jim Duquette seems to be running a lot of things behind the scenes. They need a unified plan and one voice. In a division of strong GMs, Baltimore lacks that.
Rich: I guess it's not much fun to be a current O's fan either. Long gone are the days of Earl Weaver, all those 20-game winners, and that great infield defense. It's been ten years since the team played .500. As Sully said, this was a proud franchise. But it has been stuck in fourth place for a long time and Tampa Bay is going to pass them soon.
Mike: One game I play is to try and imagine a scenario by which each club could win the division. The only way I can get there for the Orioles is for Adam Loewen, Erik Bedard and Daniel Cabrera to turn into Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz overnight. I strain to get Bedard into Glavine's shoes, but no matter how hard I try, I cannot imagine the other two making miraculous transformations in one season. The best case scenario for the O's, to my mind, is that the young arms take a stride forward, but even there, the offensive firepower is not likely to be there in the future when the arms are ready.
Pete: Where do you guys stand on the Devil Rays? I've gotten to know owner Stu Sternberg a bit and he seems to be doing the right things. They've opened academies in Latin America, increased spending on scouting and development and signed some young players to long-term deals. But in this division, it's still a long way up. Are they at long last going in the right direction?
Rich: Absolutely. I'll give the new ownership and management some of the credit but most of it is simply due to the fact that the team has consistently had one of the first picks in the amateur draft and many of these players are now at the point where they should begin to pay dividends. The outfield of Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, and Delmon Young is oozing with talent and athleticism while two of the future infielders in Evan Longoria and Reid Brignac are within a year or two of making their impact felt in Tampa. The Rays also have a a top-of-the-rotation starter in Scott Kazmir plus a number of quality arms in the farm system, but I wouldn't expect pitching to be an area of strength until 2009, at the earliest.
Mike: The key issue for the D-Rays will be the development of their infield defence. The signing of Akinori Iwamura helps significantly. It sounds as though the Rays have decided for now to keep him at third base, where he is a Gold Glove quality fielder. Ben Zobrist is an adequate defensive shortstop, but Jorge Cantu is a liability at second base. For now, the plan seems to be try B.J. Upton there at least part of the time. If that doesn't work, Longoria and Iwamura will be tried in some combination at second and third. The progress of the infield defence will play an important role in the paths of the young pitching prospects, J.P. Howell, Jamie Shields, Andy Sonnanstine and Jason Hammel. I am more optimistic than Rich about the progress of the Ray pitching; I expect Howell and Jeff Niemann to take a step forward in 2007.
Rich: If Niemann can stay healthy, he should be a stud in due time. Howell and Shields are capable big-league starters and both should be in the rotation this year. I'm not that high on Hammel and am unsure about how Sonnanstine's stuff will play in the AL East, but they will both be in the mix for a spot at the back end of the rotation this year and next, respectively. What I really like though are a few guys deeper down in the system. Wade Davis and Jacob McGee were two of the best pitchers in the Low Class A Midwest League and Mitch Talbot, who the Rays stole from the Astros in the Aubrey Huff rent-a-player deal, was exceptional in the Double A Southern League playoffs last year.
Mike: Sonnanstine will probably start the season in triple A. Even if the rotation does improve, as I think it will, the bullpen looks miserable to me. Are there any bright lights there that I am not seeing?
Sully: I like Shawn Camp and Chad Orvella, but I can pretty much take or leave the rest of that pen.
Rich: All right, let's go around the room a few times with some concluding thoughts. If there is an MVP, Cy Young, and/or Rookie of the Year out of this division, who do you see grabbing each of those awards?
Pete: There are certainly multiple candidates out of this division. This will probably come back to haunt me, but A-Rod for MVP and Matsuzaka for Rookie of the Year. The Cy Young probably comes out of the Central but I see big seasons for Wang and Beckett. Wang was close to 21 or 22 wins last season.
Mike: The usual suspects, Jeter, A-Rod, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, are again the most likely MVP candidates from the AL East. Instead of one of these four, I'll go on a hunch with two longshot breakout candidates, Carl Crawford and Alex Rios. Matsuzaka for Rookie of the Year makes sense to me, as does Pete's view that the Cy Young winner will come out fo the Central. The best pitcher in the division, and a Cy Young candidate, will once again be Roy Halladay.
Rich: I have a difficult time thinking of Matsuzaka as a rookie but, until the rules are changed, I'm gonna go with him as the ROY. As far as MVP goes, I think this just may be David Ortiz's year. There are a number of Martin Scorseses in this division who could get it based on lifetime achievement, but I sense that Big Papi is going to wear down the voters this time around. Cy Young? If not Santana, then how about Roy Halladay? I could see him winning 16 to 18 games with an ERA in the low 3s. I know that doesn't sound Cy Youngish but those numbers were good enough for Brandon Webb to win it in the NL last year.
Sully: I am not sure I have a lot to add to that. Matsuzaka seems like a great ROY candidate and a dark horse Cy Young winner too. In any order, Ortiz, Manny, Jeter, A-Rod and Tejada are the five best players in the division while Halladay is clearly the best starter. Switching gears a bit, what will be the biggest surprise this year? I am going to go with Boston's bullpen. I'll come off like a homer here but I think new pitching coach John Farrell has enough arms to put together a quality pen, and with the offense and starting pitching as good as it is, they will be able to withstand the inevitable bullpen woes it will take for Terry Francona to figure out everyone's role. But come summer, Boston's bullpen will be a strength.
Pete: The biggest surprise will be the trouble Boston has scoring. Their offense is a house of cards and I don't mean St. Louis. Manny quit on them last season and could do so at any time this season. J.D. Drew's placid personality will be a bad fit in Boston. Coco Crisp and Jason Varitek need bounce-back seasons. I think what we saw of them late season is what they are.
Sully: A house of cards, huh Pete? I would say it is quite a leap to suggest that Manny "could quit at any time." He played less than 150 games for the first time in four seasons in 2006. And Drew's personality could very well be perfect for Boston. He seems more or less emotionless and has never cared about fan pressure. He is a career .333/.474/.600 hitter at Citizens Bank Park and I am pretty sure he has heard a "boo" or two there. Crisp and Varitek may need bounce-back seasons for the Sox offense to click, but they are both tremendous candidates to do just that. And the notion that what we saw late in the season from Boston is what they are now is preposterous. Lugo replaces Alex Gonzalez. Drew replaces Trot Nixon, who was just awful late last season. Manny replaces Kevin Youkilis in left field, who replaces Eric Hinske at first. Crisp and Varitek should be healthy. Think Dustin Pedroia will be a career .191/.258/.303 hitter? Do I need to go on?
Rich: Ahh, just for fun, I'll say either A-Rod or Manny gets traded at the deadline.
Mike: The Tampa Bay Devil Rays. After a 61 win season last year, few people expect them to be competitive this year, but I think that they will be. It will probably mean only about 75 wins due to a weak bullpen, but the AL East goliaths will notice.
Rich: It's time to get out your crystal balls and give us your predictions. Who is going to win the division and in what order do you see the standings come October?
Mike: The Yankees will take the division with 92 wins. That might not sound like much, but for a club in a rebuilding year and cutting payroll, it is really quite impressive. Boston, Toronto, Baltimore and Tampa will follow. The margin between top and bottom will be cut in half from last year's 36 games.
Pete: Until somebody beats them, you have to go with the Yankees. Plus they have what looks like the best team. New York, Toronto, Boston, Tampa Bay, Baltimore.
Sully: Boston leaps two places to win the division, and then it's New York, Toronto, Tampa Bay and Baltimore.
Rich: I believe it will come down to the Yankees and Red Sox. Whichever team does the best job at staying healthy and solving its main weakness (first base and a closer, respectively) will have the edge. If that same club also signs Roger Clemens, good night, turn out the lights, the party is over. Toronto will finish in third by a comfortable margin and Tampa Bay will edge Baltimore for fourth.