Two on Two: AL East Preview
We have decided to do our little part to combat the rampant West Coast / Midwest sports bias so prevalent in the mainstream media and give the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and the rest of the American League East its due by saving it for last. Today we have Chad Finn of Touching All the Bases, one of the more enjoyable regular reads covering Boston sports and beyond out there on the web (think Simmons w/ self awareness). We also have R.J. Anderson of D-Rays Bay, your source for the best Rays coverage out there. Previous entries can be found below.
Sully: So the Red Sox won their second World Series in four years last season but more to the point for the purposes of this discussion, they won their first division crown since 1995. Is there a new world order in AL East, a blip on the radar and the Yanks once again rise to the top, or might we see other clubs make noise in 2008?
Chad: Well, I wouldn't necessarily call it a changing of the guard, because it will be a major surprise if Boston and New York aren't again punching and counterpunching each other at the top of the standings come August and September. But let's put it this way: their competition will be more capable and legitimate than it has been in years. If certain things right for Toronto - Vernon Wells bounces back, Roy Halladay stays healthy, Alex Rios and Dustin McGowan emerge as bona fide stars, and Scott Rolen somehow manages to avoid hemorrhaging any more body parts - they could really make things uncomfortable for the two superpowers deep into the schedule. And while I know it's trendy to say this, the other team in the division that really intrigues me is the Rays. It feels like he's been around for a decade, but Carl Crawford is only 26, and he's become the cornerstone of the franchise, which is a good thing; his OPS+ has increased each of the last four seasons, and he's the anti-Delmon in the clubhouse, a genuinely good and conscientious kid, the exact right player to be building around. With kids like B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria (when he inevitably arrives in a few weeks) and Carlos Pena intent on proving he was no fluke, Crawford finally has some help in the lineup; there's finally a core of legitimate talent to this team. I can't believe I just overviewed the division without really getting into the Sox and Yankees, but I guess that just tells you that there are some genuinely compelling storylines elsewhere this season.
R.J. This may have been the least active off-season for the AL East in quite a while, outside of Baltimore and Tampa no team was overly active. New York added LaTroy Hawkins, Boston Sean Casey, and Toronto David Eckstein and Rolen, but otherwise the major players in the division did little to get better, although Baltimore managed to get worse so that should help.
Sully: That's an interesting point, R.J. For all the dough the teams in this division tend to throw around, things did cool down this off-season. I can't help but think it is a testament to the strength of the Minor League systems in the AL East.
Marc: If another team besides the Yankees and Red Sox is going to take a serious run at first in the East, this is the year to do it. Both the Red Sox and Yankees are getting old and a number of players had career years last year, such as Mike Lowell. The Blue Jays organization has a shot but the players have to play up to their abilities, something they really haven't done in recent years. They also have to stay healthy. The Rays aren't quite ready yet, but the talented young players are close to being major league ready, so they should be quite fun to watch in a couple years. The Orioles are just a mess.
Sully: Let's talk about the Red Sox and in particular, their pitching staff. What happened to all of that depth people talked about last winter? All of a sudden, the rotation seems a bit thin.
Chad: You tell me if Josh Beckett is going to be healthy, and I'll tell you how good Boston's pitching staff will be. I know, I know, that's a cop-out, but it's the truth. As much depth as the Sox appear to have, everything falls out of whack if Beckett's back acts up or he starts getting blisters again or some other ailment knocks him out of the rotation for an extended period. He might be the single most important player in the division. Without him, they'd be asking Daisuke Matsuzaka to anchor the rotation, with Jon Lester likely sliding up to No. 2, and neither is capable of handling those roles. In the two games in Japan, both reverted to their maddening habits of nibbling against replacement level-and-below-caliber hitters.
R.J.: Beckett’s post-season made him a folk hero in Boston. I’m pretty sure he’ll never have to buy his own beer or go home alone again. Daisuke fell off in September, but in June and July, specifically June looked like he was worth the hype. Tim Wakefield is Tim Wakefield, steady as they come, and you could argue the Red Sox rotation is better without Curt Schilling since it allows the Sox to keep Clay Buchholz and Lester in there.
Marc: With Beckett and Schilling on the disabled list the Red Sox starting staff is human to say the least. Lester is a great story but he was just a No. 4 starter the last two seasons (104 ERA+ last year)… Yes he had a lot to overcome but the team still doesn't know what to expect from him. Matsuzaka is a good pitcher but I'm not convinced he would be able to shoulder the load as the No. 1 guy for an extended period. Wakefield is starting to break down and has been battling shoulder issues. Buchholz is extremely talented but he's young.
The Red Sox have three solid options in the pen: Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima and Manny Delcarmen but beyond that the pieces are easily interchangeable.
Chad: As for the bullpen, it's more or less the status quo - Okajima should be a little worse, Delcarmen a little better and Papelbon will continue to give us Goose Gossage flashbacks. By the way, it should be said that the pitching staff will miss Coco Crisp in center field if he is indeed traded; Jacoby Ellsbury covers a lot of ground despite a sometimes faulty GPS, but Crisp last season played the best center field seen at Fenway since . . . who, Dom DiMaggio?
Marc: Personally I think the Sox made a mistake resigning Lowell. He's on the wrong side of 30 (34) and they're paying for his career year. Sure he plays outstanding defence but his bat is going to become a drag on the offence, as it was when he was in the latter stages of his Marlins career. Pair him with Julio Lugo, who may or may not rebound, and you have below-average offence on the left-side of the diamond.
Dustin Pedroia is a nice little talent and should get even better this year but he's a sparkplug, not someone that can carry the offence. Kevin Youkilis at first base is an average offensive player at best. There really isn't anyone on the infield that is going to carry to team long-term. Jason Varitek, like Lowell, is going to start to be a drain on the offence sooner rather than later, although he has obvious value behind the dish. Ellsbury should pair with Pedroia to be explosive and ignite the offence but he's not going to be a star.
Of course Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz are going to be the offensive juggernauts but Ramirez started to slip last year. He's probably done being a great player, but he can still be a good player.
Sully: I disagree pretty strongly on Manny, Marc. I think he is poised for some big things in 2008, although that could be the fanboy in me buying into all those Spring Training "best shape of his life" stories. Aside from Manny, in my eyes, Lugo and J.D. Drew will have to be the ones to pick up the slack this season. I think regression candidates abound throughout the lineup for Boston but these three players could make up the year over year slack.
Chad: I see things similarly, Sully. The Red Sox scored 867 runs a season ago, and provided their aging core players stay healthy, they figure to be right around that number again. Lowell, who hit 44 points higher than his career .280 average last season and didn't tail off in the second half for the first time in years, probably will fall off at least a little bit from his .324-21-120 numbers; PECOTA has him at .285-14-79, which seems a little too conservative. Varitek, who will turn 36 April 11, seems unlikely to rank fourth among everyday AL catchers in OPS again this season; he looked like he was swinging a telephone pole this spring. But every downturn by a Sox hitter should be counterbalanced by someone else's improvement. Youkilis seems to add something to his repertoire each season, Drew, who salvaged a wretched season with one postseason swing against Fausto Carmona, is too gifted to post a .270-.373-.423 line again, and Lugo is another who must be put in the category He'll Be Better Because He Can't Be Worse. But the key to it all is one Manuel Aristides Ramirez, aka Manny Being Manny. At age 36, he is coming off the worst season of his 16-year big league career; his 20 homers and 126 OPS+ were his lowest numbers in those categories since he became a full-time player in '94, and his 88 RBIs was his lowest output since he posted the same number in '97. You don't need to be Bill James to realize that a bounce-back year for any slugger in his mid-30s is an unlikely proposition, but there are some factors that are working in Ramirez's favor. He's in phenomenal shape, he's as content in Boston as he has been since he arrived eight years ago, he looked like his old self in the '07 postseason, and perhaps most importantly, he has two option years coming up on his contract that he and his accountant dearly want the Sox to pick up. Ramirez is motivated, and a motivated Manny is historically a ridiculously productive Manny. I won't go as far as Gammons and pick him for the AL MVP, but I do think he'll approach his .321-35-121 numbers of a season ago while proving last year was an aberration and not the onset of a rapid decline.
R.J. And at this point you realize why the Sox did almost nothing to upgrade their team, because minus adding Johan Santana there really wasn’t a way to do so. Ramirez is in the ever mythical contract year and naturally reported in record time in great shape. Ortiz is still going to mash, and don’t be shocked if Lugo bounces back in a big way. I’m not sure I really get the Casey signing unless they just really don’t like Ortiz at first base, which effectively takes him out of road interleague games. Didn’t they try the same experiment with J.T. Snow not too long ago?
Sully: How about the Yanks? What they may lack in that bigtime top of the rotation guy they seem to make up for with depth, youth and live arms up and down the staff.
Marc: The pitching staff makes me very nervous. Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina are getting old and it's hard to know when they are just going to lose it completely… Mussina certainly showed signs last year that he is nearing the end (87 ERA+ in 2007).
You also have to be a little worried about Chien-Ming Wang who may have leveled off… He just doesn't strikeout enough guys (104 in just under 200 innings) to be a No. 1 or maybe even a No. 2 guy long-term.
Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy are talented but you just cannot expect young pitchers, who haven't played a full season, to shoulder 200 innings and win 13-15 games. At best you're probably looking at 180 innings, so you need a six starter to pick up the other 40 innings or so for each of them.
For the amount of money the Yankees have invested in the team the bullpen, beyond Mariano Rivera and Joba Chamberlain, is thin. Billy Traber, Jonathan Albaladejo and Ross Ohlendorf really don't belong on a $200 million team.
R.J.: The expectations for Wang and the other veterans in the rotation are set. The more interesting focus will be on Hughes and Kennedy. How big of a leash will either be given if they come out struggling and will it affect their value to the Yankees? I don’t think Cashman is that temperamental, but a new boss and no contact extension in place could push him over the edge to deal one of the youngsters for another piece.
Anther question concerning the young arms is Joe Girardi’s usage of them, in his season with Florida he had something like six young pitchers in the top 60 of Pitcher Abuse Points and look at each of their performances last year, most falling off or getting hurt. That’s concerning to me if I’m a Yankee fan.
Chad: It all comes down to the trio of kid pitchers, and R.J. is right - it's going to be fascinating to see how Girardi handles them. The Yankees are saying all the right things about pitch counts and innings limits, and it's prudent to open with Chamberlain in the bullpen. But Girardi left A LOT of carnage behind in Florida - it can't be coincidence that Anibal Sanchez, Josh Johnson, and Ricky Nolasco broke down the year after Girardi managed them - and with the pressure to win so great in New York, you have to wonder if, say, Hughes will end up throwing 200+ innings should he pitch as well as his talent suggests. As for the rest of the rotation, it's iffy: I'm smart enough to pencil in Wang for 19 wins, but Mussina was throwing slop this spring, and Pettitte will have to endure his various ailments without turning to some of his favorite past remedies, which makes you wonder how effective he can be. It's not going to be an easy season for him, and overall this staff has more questions than answers.
Sully: There's not a lot to say about the Yankees lineup, is there? It's phenomenal, and I think has a chance to get better if Bobby Abreu, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon can bounce back a bit. These four returning to form could more than make up for regression from A-Rod and/or Jorge Posada.
Chad: As usual, it looks great on paper, and in reality it probably will end up being the second-most-productive lineup in the AL after the run-scoring juggernaut Dave Dombrowski has put together in Detroit. But there are some legitimate questions, mostly have to do with Father Time. Damon (34) and Matsui (33) both slipped noticeably last season. Giambi (37) is a cement-legged shell of what he once was. Abreu (33) slugged just .445 last season, the worst of his career. Posada (36) is unlikely to replicate his .330-20-98 numbers of his '07 contract push. And don't look now, Yankees fans, but Derek Jeter is no kid anymore, either. He turns 34 in June, and his .803 OPS in the second half last season has to be at least a mild concern. On the positive side, Damon and Abreu came into camp in great shape and with renewed motivation, Robinson Cano is going to put up .330-25-110 numbers one of these seasons, and any lineup with Rodriguez as its anchor is going to produce plenty of runs. The Yankees may not match the 968 runs they scored last season, but unless EVERYONE gets old overnight, they'll get pretty close.
R.J.: So all that hoopla just for A-Rod to remain? I’m not shocked, I mean it is New York and the Steinbrenner family, but talk about anti-climatic! The ironic thing is that Rodriguez is one of the only truly dependable bats in the New York lineup. Not that I believe it’s going to happen, but Jeter is about to turn 34; at what point does he slow down, or does he ever? Posada has nearly no chance of repeating last year’s performance, his BABIP was 0.030 points higher than his previous career high, and that was in 2000. Abreu certainly won’t help during the first half, and the list just goes on, really is it so far fetched to see the Yankees below .500 in early July again?
Marc: The offence is going to be good but it does have holes. Where is the average first baseman? Wilson Betemit? No. Shelley Duncan? He's Kevin Maas 2.0. Posada was given an extended contract after a career year but he's 36… I just can't see him being above-average for much longer. Regardless, the Yankees have Cano, Jeter and Rodriguez, all of whom are well above-average offensively. Giambi will be at DH but he is going downhill and slugged only .433 last year.
Damon and Matsui have also lost a step or two. Melky Cabrera is probably a better option than Damon at his point, but Cabrera is also overrated… He's does a bunch of things well but nothing really well with the bat.
Chad: This pitching staff could be the best in the division, or it could be mediocre - there are just so many "ifs" here that need to be sorted out over the long season. Halladay is a perennial Cy Young favorite, but he seems to be a magnet for bizarro injuries, and though it's partially by design, it's at least a little worrisome that he's really not a strikeout pitcher anymore (139 in 225.3 innings a season ago). McGowan is just 25 and has all the makings of a top-of-the-rotation starter, but he and the underrated Shaun Marcum both need to continue making progress. A.J. Burnett is a classic tease, the Ben Sheets of the American League. Who knows what they will get from B.J. Ryan and his reconstructed elbow, and losing Casey Janssen for the year was an under-reported but potentially devastating blow. He was outstanding last season (2.35 ERA, 190 ERA+).
Sully: I am not sure there is much in there I disagree with, Chad. I would just add that I think Toronto has four magnificent arms in the bullpen in Ryan, Jeremy Accardo, Jason Frasor and Scott Downs.
Marc: The Jays may have the best rotation in the league with Halladay, Burnett, McGowan, Marcum and Jesse Litsch. Halladay is a horse, but the Jays need to give him more rest – Manager John Gibbons ran up his pitch counts last year in games when the Jays were up or down by more than four or five runs. There is no excuse for that, especially when the pitcher has shown signs of wearing down in the last couple of years.
Burnett will be motivated this year because he can opt out of his contract with the Jays and seek more money elsewhere, much like JD Drew did a couple years ago. But he didn't look good in the spring because of a ripped fingernail that kept him from throwing the curveball. It's still not 100 percent so it could be a slow start to the season for him.
McGowan can touch the mid- to high-90s and is a lot like a young Halladay. Injuries slowed his climb through the minors but it looks like he's here to stay now and he could be very, very good. Marcum is a great No. 4 starter who strikes out more batters than his stuff might suggest but he has a great change-up and a solid slider. He's a former college closer who is still getting comfortable as a starter. His biggest issue is that he gives up too many homers.
Litsch is another underrated guy. He just gets results despite "average" stuff. Left-handers hit well against him last year but he added a sinking two-seamer in the off-season and really began throwing it well in his last two spring starts. He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning in his last spring start.
Losing Janssen to shoulder surgery hurts a lot in the pen but once Ryan returns from Tommy John Surgery by the end of April, it will allow fill-in closer Accardo to slide back to the set-up role.
R.J: This really comes down to the health of their top three arms, if Halladay, Burnett, and McGowan stay healthy I can see them sneaking into a wild card spot. Accardo will fill in for Ryan for a while, and we’ll how the bullpen shakes out with Downs and Brandon League, but I don’t see much of a reason – barring the injury bug turning into a goddamned cthulhu - to think the Jays are the one legitimate threat to the Yankees and Red Sox finishing first-second, just as they have been for a few seasons now.
I’m a big John McDonald fan, so you can imagine my reaction when I saw they signed David Eckstein. A team that has Marco Scutaro, Russ Adams, Aaron Hill, and McDonald will have the defensively average at best Eckstein playing? That’s sure to hurt the amazing range the Jays had at their disposal up the middle.
Sully: Toronto's offense dragged last season thanks mostly to McDonald, a down year from Wells and major disappointment from Adam Lind, someone I thought would be very good. Shannon Stewart replaces Lind, Eckstein replaces McDonald and you have to think Wells gets better, right?
Chad: In a lot of ways, the offense is in the same boat as the pitching staff - there's a lot of talent, but they need a few breaks to go their way. Wells needs to prove his shoulder is healthy; it's strange to look at his stats and realize a prime-of-career player with truly immense talent hit just .245 with 16 homers, half of his '07 total. Alex Rios turned 27 in February, so all logic suggests this is the season he lives up to his superstar ability. He had a fine 297-.354-.498 season, but he has the skills to do even more than that, and the belief here is that he will starting now. One player I personally expect to have a fantastic season is Aaron Hill, the 26-year-old second baseman. The Bill James Handbook projects a .292-.346-.440 line with 13 homers, while PECOTA has him at .271-.325-.405 with 11 homers. I'm betting those numbers are conservative and he hits above .300 with at least 20 homers. The more you see Hill, the more impressed you are. He really can play.
Marc: The Jays are confident with the left-field platoon of 40-year-old Matt Stairs and the two-time Jay Stewart. But Lind is at Triple-A and had a great spring. He should be the future at that position but that future really should have been now.
Wells and Rios are above-average outfielders and above-average hitters, although Wells suffered through and injury-marred year last season. Don't be surprised if Rios becomes one of the best outfielders in the American League this year… His power numbers have been on the rise the last three years and he is always a threat to hit .300.
Lyle Overbay and Rolen, who is currently out with an injured finger, should be at least league-average on the corners. Hill is one of the top three to five second basemen in the league and should continue to get better. Shortstop is a bit of a black hole with Eckstein and McDonald, neither of whom will hit all that well. Eckstein will, though, add some much-needed intensity and energy.
Frank Thomas is getting older and his bat has slowed considerably. He still tries to pull everything, and he cannot get around on good fastballs. If he starts going the way a little more, his average will improve and he should become a little more reliable. Between Thomas and Stairs, the Jays have too many designated hitters.
R.J.: Wells and (soon) Rios will be getting paid like stars, and that’s because they are, despite a terrible season from Wells, I have to believe he’s going to bounce back. Stairs and Stewart will split time following Reed Johnson’s departure. Rolen, Thomas and Overbay need to remain healthy and if they can this lineup could be quite nasty.
Sully: I don't have much to say on Baltimore other than to their credit, they seem to have finally made a proper diagnosis. The treatment and recovery figure to be long and arduous, but they'll get better.
R.J.: This is the point in the movie where people start crying or dying, one of the two. Jeremy Guthrie was a nice find, but the pink elephant in the room is regression, and it’s not very happy with Mr. Guthrie. Fernando and Daniel Cabrera have live arms, and loads of potential, but will they ever live up to it? The bullpen has some good pieces; Chad Bradford, George Sherrill, Jamie Walker, and even the intriguing Randor Bierd. I’m sure if the Orioles don’t win a lot someone will blame it on their lack of a “true” or “proven” closer, but that’s the least of the team’s worries.
Chad: Where have you gone, Eric Bedard? There's not much to like here. Jeremy Guthrie knows how to pitch - you can definitely see fellow Stanford product Mike Mussina's influence when you watch him - but he had a 5.03 ERA after the All-Star break last season, so he's far from a sure thing. And he's the alleged ace. Yikes. Cabrera is the epitome of the phrase "million-dollar arm, 10-cent head," former No. 4 overall pick Adam Loewen is mildly intriguing if unproven, and when retread Steve Trachsel is your fourth starter, well, you don't really have a fourth starter at all, do you? On the plus side, Sherrill, the new closer acquired in the Bedard deal with Seattle, is capable of handling the job promotion; he had a 0.99 WHIP setting up J.J. Putz last season. And at least the Orioles probably won't give up 30 runs in a single game again. Hey, small steps.
Marc: The Orioles' staff has really taken some injuries hits in the past year-plus, when you consider Loewen, Chris Ray, Troy Patton, Danys Baez and so on.
This year's pitching staff is ugly. Loewen is back from the DL but for how long? He hasn't even pitched a full major league season. Guthrie had a great year but played above his head and could be in for a fall. He's had one full major league season and he's turning 29 in April.
Cabrera has shown no signs consistency whatsoever and is more likely to kill someone with his wild 100 mph heat than harness it. Brian Burres is really just a middle reliever playing the part of a starting pitching. And Trachsel should be allowed no where near a major league staff. He struck out 56 batters in 158 innings last season and walked 76 – 20 more than he struck out and almost one every other inning. That's hardly a 60-win rotation.
It's funny to think how much the Orioles spent "improving" the bullpen two years ago. The only two left standing: Bradford and Walker have been OK but they are not impact players – in fact between the two of them they make one average pitcher. Walker held lefties to a line of .228/.279/.392 in 2007 but was hit harder by righties. Bradford held righties to a line of .238/.277/.301 but was creamed by lefties.
Sully: What about their bats? There's some hope for the future in Nick Markakis and Adam Jones but not much to look forward to after that.
Chad: Free Brian Roberts! Free Brian Roberts! Seriously, beyond Markakis (14 homers and a .939 OPS in the second half last year) and remarkably talented but raw Adam (Don't Call Me Pacman) Jones, there's not much to be inspired about here. To be more blunt: this is just a terribly operated and constructed baseball team. Congratulations again, Mr. Angelos, for turning
one of baseball's model organizations into a punchline. However, I must give them their due for
dumping the decomposing Miguel Tejada the day before the release of the Mitchell Report. That was one shrewd, play-the-Astros-for-suckers move by Andy McPhail, so maybe there's hope for them straightening out this mess yet. At worst, they know there's one team dumber than they are.
Marc: Any time you have Kevin Millar, 36, at first base, you know you're in trouble. He doesn't hit for average, or for much power, and he doesn't have a knack for driving in runs (just 63 in 140 games last year). The other corner man, Melvin Mora, is also 36 and starting to decline both offensively and defensively. Luis Hernandez has been pegged as the shortstop but will be lucky to hit .220 with a .300 slugging average.
Roberts is the only really offensive talent on the infield and the Orioles really should have dealt him when they had the chance. That said, the club could have a nice little nucleus with Roberts, Markakis and Jones. But those three could never make up for the painful lack of pitching, even if all three made the next five All-Star teams.
R.J.: On the positive side and as Chad alluded to, they couldn’t have traded Tejada at a more opportune time, and got a nice coup for him. Jones, Luke Scott and Markakis have the potential to become a very good outfield. And then there’s the infield, Brian Roberts could gain some value, but probably not too much, otherwise Aubrey Huff, Mora, and Millar should be pawned off if possible – they won’t be contributing when this team will be competing anyhow.
Sully: R.J. - I want to stick with you here as we turn our attention to Tampa Bay. Pretty exciting times for the Rays. How's the pitching/defense?
R.J.: The Rays owner Stuart Sternberg recently said the team’s defense is a reason to watch his team, and he’s right. For once the Rays have a solid defensive team all the way around, including the agile Jason Bartlett, Akinori Iwamura, and an outfield that – minus Jonny Gomes/Eric Hinske will be quite fast.
Scott Kazmir’s health is the key factor in the Rays season along with Matt Garza’s development. James Shields should be solid, but after that Edwin Jackson and Jason Hammel have Rays fans praying for Jeff Niemann’s arrival.
Troy Percival, Al Reyes, Dan Wheeler, and Trever Miller give the Rays a veteran bullpen and quite an upgrade over last season’s which ranked amongst the worst ever.
Chad: Provided we don't hear "Scott Kazmir" and "Dr. James Andrews" mentioned in the same breath anytime soon, there are the makings of a terrific young rotation here. Kazmir is obviously the key, and the Rays have been appropriately cautious with the reigning AL strikeout champ's tender left elbow this spring; hopefully, the soreness proves to be nothing serious, because there has always been the fear that the little lefty could turn into his generation's Don Gullett. Shields whiffed five times more batters than he walked last season - think about how impressive a feat that is for a young pitcher - and is a legitimate No. 2, and cocky former Twin Garza has the stuff to make a huge leap forward this season. For the first time in their existence, the Rays can go into a series with the Red Sox or Yankees and, if the rotation is lined up right, actually own the advantage in starting pitching in a three-game set. And I'm curious to see how Percival impacts the Rays' perennially flammable bullpen. He was downright excellent for the Cardinals (0.85 WHIP in 40 innings) after coming out of retirement late last season. He could make a huge difference if that wasn't a mirage.
Marc: Make no mistake, Rays pitching is getting better. But it's still not quite league average. Kazmir, if he's healthy at some point this year, is a great anchor for the staff. Garza was a nice pick-up but he's going to be overexposed as the No. 2 guy in the rotation until Kazmir returns. Shields is a little like Shaun Marcum in Toronto – they both get results above what you might expect based solely on their stuff.
One out of the trio of Hammel, Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine really needs to step it up this year. My bet is that it will be Sonnanstine, who has less stuff but better pitchability over the other two. If they don't, we'll be seeing rookies Jacob McGee, Niemann and Wade Davis before long.
Pervical and Reyes have a lot in common: both have closing experience, both have significant, and worrisome medical histories and both are in their declining years but are expected to stabilize the bullpen. The pen doesn't offer much else beyond that.
Sully: The Rays had a 103 OPS+ last year and figure to get better. What do you guys think about this lineup?
R.J.: Rocco Baldelli’s career is likely over, which leaves the aforementioned Gomes/Hinske platoon in right field. It’s not ideal, however the Rays have the resources – financially and prospects – to possibly make a run at a full time right fielder if they so desire. Dioner Navarro, Willy Aybar (until Longoria comes up), and the right field platoon will decide whether the Rays are a top offense or middle of the pack, and don’t discount Upton and Pena returning to Earth ever so slightly.
Chad: Well, I got into the Rays' offense a little bit in my overview, but let me add this: I'm convinced Pena was no fluke. Remember, this is a guy who was once one of the premier prospects in the game, and even though he never really lived up to the early hype, he did have some fairly productive seasons, posting an OPS+ of at least 106 in every season from 2002 to 2005, and slugging 27 homers in '04 for the Tigers. While he has some damaging flaws - namely, his penchant for striking out - he's always been regarded as a hard worker, and it looks to me like he's one of those super-talented prospects for whom it just took a little bit longer for it all to come together (Brandon Phillips is another). Now, he may not hit 46 home runs again, but he'll hit enough that the Red Sox and Yankees will both continue to lament letting him go during and after the '06 season.
Marc: Pena had an amazing year last year (.627 slugging average) but I doubt he'll come close to repeating it… I can maybe see 30 homers and 100 RBI. His average will probably also go back to around .260 since he is a .252 career hitter.
The club needs to get rookie third baseman Longoria back up to the majors… He showed he belongs in the majors and he'll hit better than Alex Gordon did in KC last year. Bartlett is an under-appreciated player and he should really offer some stability at the shortstop position and as a table-setter in the batting order.
Depth offensively speaking is a bit of an issue. Elliot Johnson has little experience as a utility player and Nathan Haynes is the fourth outfielder… If he starts more than 30 games, the Rays are in trouble. And considering that Cliff Floyd is on the club, the fourth outfielder is almost assured of more starts than that.
Sully: How about AL East surprises? I am cheating a bit after having seen last night's performance but I will take Dice-K for a 20-win, top-5 Cy Young vote season.
Chad: I'll give you three: 1) The Rays will finish at or above .500 for the first time in their history. 2) McGowan will win more games than Halladay. 3) Derek Jeter will actually field a ground ball more than two steps to his left.
R.J.: How emotional the All-Star game will wind up being at Yankee Stadium. A lot of tears will be shed, no doubt.
Marc: I really think people are going to be surprised how old the Red Sox and Yankees are getting. New York has really come on strong in the second half the last couple of years but I think they're going to do the exact opposite this year. Both the veterans and the first-full-year players are going to wear down by August.
Sully: How about awards candidates?
Chad: A-Rod has to be considered the favorite for MVP at the beginning of every season. He'll turn 33 in July - yep, another 30-something Yankee - but his OPS+ of 177 last year was the best of his magnificent career, and with the new contract he should finally have some peace of mind in New York. He'll be a beast again, despite Jose Canseco's pathetic, cartoon-villain efforts to besmirch him. If I can admit my bias as a Sox fan, there'd be some justice in Ortiz finally winning an MVP after finishing in the top five in each of the past five years. And if Toronto ends up in the postseason hunt, you have to figure Rios probably had that breakthrough, Dave Winfield-like .295-35-120 season. As for the other major awards, Beckett's going to win a Cy Young one of these years, so what the heck, let's say it will be this one. And with the influx of young talent in the division, there are numerous legitimate candidates for rookie of the year (Longoria, Ellsbury, Buchholz, Chamberlain). I'll go with Ellsbury, the Brett Butler wannabe whose candidacy will benefit from playing every day for a marquee team.
Marc: I'll go with Ian Kennedy for rookie of the year. He doesn't have the stuff of some of the other young pitchers but he is advanced for his age and knows how to pitch. New York is going to score runs for him so he should have a nice superficial win-loss record which should get him votes for the award.
If Josh Beckett can shake off the back issues and stay healthy for most of the year he is probably the best bet for the CY Young award in the league. Roy Halladay's numbers just aren't sexy enough for the voters.
Carl Crawford is entering his prime and is a very good ballplayer with power and speed. With some protection from BJ Upton and Carlos Pena, I think he be the stealth MVP in 2008.
R.J.: Beckett, Wang, Halladay, and Kazmir seem like the possible Cy Young candidates. Alex Rodriguez is probably a shoo in for a top two finish in MVP voting; depending on what Miguel Cabrera does. Longoria or Jacoby Ellsbury are the most likely Rookie of the Year
Sully: How about the order of finish?
Chad: 1. New York (reverse jinx, my friends) 2. Boston 3. Toronto 4. Tampa Bay 5. Ottawa Lynx 6. Baltimore
R.J.: I won’t go too radical, but: Sox, Jays, Yanks, Rays, Orioles. Just feels right, although how great would it be to see the Rays slide up a few more spots?
Marc: Either Boston or New York is going to get really old, really quickly: Boston | Toronto | New York | Tampa Bay | Baltimore
Sully: I will go Yanks, Sox, Rays, Jays, O's. Thanks to all.