Change-UpDecember 22, 2008
By Patrick Sullivan

We conclude the SWOT series today with a look at the AL East. To my eye it's the best division in baseball but NL East, NL Central or AL Central fans might disagree. The Rays are coming off a breakout year, the Yanks are reloading, Boston looks strong again and who knows? Maybe this off-season's prize will end up in Baltimore?

Tampa Bay Rays

Strengths: The Rays starting pitching looks remarkable. James Shields, Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza all made names for themselves last post-season, while uber-talent David Price steps in for the 2009 season. Their least promising starter is 26 and threw 193 innings at a 102 ERA+ clip in 2008.

Weaknesses: Jonny Gomes is currently penciled in as the Rays designated hitter. He is a career .235/.329/.455 hitter who has been declining ever since a strong 2005 season. Tampa Bay would be well served to take a long look at Milton Bradley or Jason Giambi for the position.

Opportunities: The Rays have a number of guys who are on the verge of stardom. To highlight just one, B.J. Upton walked 97 times last season but didn't find his power stroke until the post-season, when he hit seven home runs and slugged .652. Look for him to put it together this season.

Threats: While the Rays offensive core of Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena and Upton is capable of shouldering the load for a championship level offense, there is a chance that the Rays get nothing from DH, their corner outfielders, shortstop and catcher (Dioner Navarro had OPS+ seasons of 70 and 79 before last year).

Boston Red Sox

Strengths: Each Boston infielder currently set to start in 2009 will probably be, at worst, a top-5 producer at their respective positions. Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis each had MVP-caliber seasons in 2008, while Jed Lowrie and Mike Lowell stand out thanks to a thin crop of AL players at their positions as much as their own ability. Adding Mark Teixeira would enhance this strength of course.

Weaknesses: It is quite possible that Justin Masterson or Clay Buchholz develop into perfectly acceptable options in the rotation for the championship-aspirant Red Sox. But when you look now and see Tim Wakefield and Masterson rounding out their starting staff, it does pose concerns, particularly when you consider Josh Beckett's injury history and Daisuke Matsuzaka's imminent return to earth.

Opportunities: Getting Lowrie a full season under his belt will finally, for the first time since 2004 or so, give the Red Sox a very good option at shortstop. Also, the set-up trio of Hideki Okajima, Manny Delcarmen and the newly acquired Ramon Ramirez will stabilize the bullpen from the outset.

Threats: Aren't the following all possible? J.D. Drew misses 50 games. Jacoby Ellsbury still isn't what Boston hoped he would be. Pedroia and Youkilis each bat .290. Mike Lowell battles injuries all season long. David Ortiz just isn't what he used to be. Jason Varitek is back as Boston's catcher.

The point is, Boston's depth is a problem right now. Fortunately for them, we have a long way to go this off-season.

New York Yankees

Strengths: Look at this rotation. If C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett combine for 440 innings, if Chien-Ming Wang and Joba Chamberlain are healthy and Phil Hughes finds his form, then the Yankees might find themselves back on top in the East.

Weaknesses: Those slugging Yanks we have come to know over the years are taking on a different look. And by "taking on a different look" I mean considering going into 2008 with Johnny Damon and Brett Gardner both manning starting outfield spots. New York is losing its second and third best hitters from 2008 (Giambi and Bobby Abreu) to free agency. Maybe Manny Ramirez can save what was an average offense last year.

Opportunities: Moving into a new stadium and with a lot of payroll coming off the books, New York has taken advantage of even more financial flexibility than they have enjoyed over the last few years.

Threats: There are health concerns in this rotation that could quickly sink the Yanks' hopes in a competitive AL East. All of the current starters except for Sabathia have missed significant time over the last few seasons.

Toronto Blue Jays

Strengths: With a team ERA+ of 122, the Jays featured one of the best pitching staffs they have ever fielded in 2008. A.J. Burnett and Shaun Marcum are gone, but Roy Halladay, Jesse Litsch, Scott Richmond and Dustin McGowan form a nice core in the rotation. The bullpen returns more or less in place from last season.

Weaknesses: It is difficult to see where any productivity will come from in the infield. Lyle Overbay and Scott Rolen are not really an acceptable corner infield combo, while there are even more questions concerning the likes of Marco Scutaro, Aaron Hill and Joe Inglett. And don't get me started on John McDonald.

Opportunities: Toronto has an open rotation slot and it will be interesting to see how they fill it. Both Casey Janssen and David Purcey have a chance to be quality MLB starters. They will compete for the spot in Spring Training next March.

Threats: With financial problems plaguing the Jays, an aging offensive core not getting any better and free agent defections hampering the pitching staff, threats abound for this club. It seems like their window is closing.

Baltimore Orioles

Strengths: Baltimore has a top-heavy offense with a number of good players. Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis are both terrific, while Aubrey Huff, Melvin Mora and Luke Scott figure once again to be productive. There is an offensive core there.

Weaknesses: The pitching is just so bad. Let me list out their current depth chart as ESPN presents it:

Starting Pitcher:: Jeremy Guthrie, Chris Waters, Matt Albers, Radhames Liz, Garrett Olson

Relief Pitcher: George Sherrill, Jamie Walker, Jim Johnson, Kam Mickolio, Dennis Sarfate, Jim Miller

Opportunities: Matt Wieters is a career .365/.460/.625 Minor Leaguer. Just give him the catcher job already. And man, if they sign Teixeira, the average Orioles game might be five hours long in 2009.

Threats: Huff, Mora and Roberts are all on the wrong side of thirty and will be counted upon to anchor Baltimore's only hope, their offense. Should these three fall short of expectations due to age or injury, Baltimore could be truly awful.


I would argue a few points:
Tampa Bay: I think the defense should be included among the strengths, with the possibility that it improves still more with a healthy Crawford, another year's experience for Upton and Joyce in RF at some point.
Also, Gomes was non-tendered and is almost certainly not going to be on the Rays in 2009 let alone the regular DH. If nobody is signed, and indications are someone will be, then Aybar probably fills that spot.
I think one of the threats is that the bullpen, so exceptional last year, is weaker in 2009. Balfour and Howell are unlikely to be as outstanding again while they lost a useful loogy when Miller left and Wheeler showed signs of serious decline late in the year.

New York: I think the threat of injury is not just to the rotation but all over the offense. Currently, this is an old and fragile team with serious questions about whether Posada & Matsui will be productive. There are varying degrees and types of question marks concerning catcher, 2B, LF, CF, RF and DH and even some about whether Swisher can rebound and whether Jeter is beginning a slide from excellent to merely above average. And of course the defense is hardly confidence inspiring.

Baltimore: I am not so confident that Mora will remain productive. His OPS+ prior to 2008 was 91 & 98, so 2008 may just be a spike, and was built on a return of some power with a simultaneous decline in BB rate. In my view, the real opportunity for Baltimore is that it might be able to get something of value for Huff and even Mora, not that either will help them contend in 2009.

On Tampa, I would agree on just about all of those points and thanks for pointing out Gomes. Somehow I missed that.

Regarding the Yanks offense, I just don't see it as a team strength to begin with so while I would concede your point, I don't think there is all that wide of a band of potential outcomes. It will be anywhere from slightly below to slightly above average.

On Baltimore, that's fair on Mora. He's always been something of a favorite of mine, which may be clouding my judgment. Even when he was excellent, he was very under-appreciated.

I think you may be undervaluing John McDonald's defense. His offense is not the problem with the Blue Jays, the fact that the premium offensive positions stink is.

John McDonald is overrated defensively after his career year '07 season. I think Hill will once again be above average, offensively and especially defensively in his return. I think Inglett has proved through his career that he can hit .300, he just has no position.

The Jays rotation is very shaky, I think that should be highlighted as a major weakness. Nobody knows if/when McGowan will return to form, currently there are only 2 proven major league starters on the roster: Halladay and Litsch, who is now #2 (was #5 opening day last year).

Janssen and the rest of the crew are all questionmarks as well: I think their real opportunities lie in the high minors. Pitching help from Brett Cecil and Brad Mills, offensive help from Travis Snider. The offense is due for a rebound (last year was very bad compared to career norms for most of the roster), the pitching, not so much.

Why should the Red Sox be concerned about "rounding out their rotation" with a guy who has posted an ERA+ of 100 or better (noting that average for a SP is in the low 90s) for the past 8 years?