AL East SWOT
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.
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.