With only one more day until the season opener, the baseball world seems to be set for another logjam in the AL East. At least that’s what prognosticators would have you believe. The defending division champion Baltimore Orioles, whose 96-win campaign allowed them to run away with the division by 12 games in 2014, lost key members from that club while the Red Sox and Blue Jays reloaded in an effort to reclaim the division and possibly more.
Will the Rays pitching and Yankees relatively healthy spring allow for revitalization in New York and Tampa Bay? We here at Eutaw Street Report will try to answer these questions for you. Without further ado….
When the Orioles take the field Monday afternoon to faceoff against the Tampa Bay Rays, they will be without a familiar face – Nick Markakis. The nine-year right fielder headed for Atlanta in the offseason, signing with the Braves to the tune of four years, $44 million. The Orioles wanted to keep their longest tenured player, but neck issues and an impending surgery caused too much concern for the ball club to justify giving four years to a player with diminishing ability. Instead, they traded two low-level prospects in Stephen Tarpley and Steven Brault to the Pirates in exchange for former first-round pick Travis Snider.
Snider is the kind of reclamation project that Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter have become known for during their time in Baltimore (see: Steve Pearce and Nate McClouth). Snider, a former first-round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays, was rushed in Toronto as he was at one point the youngest position player in the majors. Injuries hindered his career in Toronto as well, and in 2012 Snider was traded to Pittsburgh, where he continued to struggle as he was relegated to a platoon role for much of his time in the Steel City. After a disappointing first half in 2014, Snider came on strong for the Pirates in the second half, batting .288 with 9 HRs and 24 RBI in just 170 ABs. The Orioles are hoping that Snider has found his stroke and can help them retain their division title in 2015. At just $2.1 million, he’s certainly worth an extended look.
As for the rest
The Orioles’ starting rotation and bullpen that pitched to a 3.43 ERA in 2014 (good for third in the American League) remains mostly intact. Andrew Miller has left for the Yankees, but he was only on the team for about six weeks, and it’s hard to justify $10m/year for a setup man. Ubaldo Jimenez’s fat contract and solid spring has pushed Kevin Gausman to the bullpen where he flourished in the postseason last year.
The lineup features two of the top players in the game at their positions in perennial All-Star Adam Jones and the slick-fielding Manny Machado. After a one-game suspension (the final of a 25-gamer handed down last year), Chris Davis will return to the lineup for game two of the season, and the team is hoping he can find the swing that made him the home run and RBI champion in 2013. They are going to need his production to help replace the departure of 2014 MLB home run king Nelson Cruz.
Shortstop J.J. Hardy and catcher Matt Wieters will begin the season on the disabled list, but Hardy is expected back for the home-opening Toronto Series, and Wieters could be back as early as April 11th, though May 1st seems more realistic at this point. With Pearce and Delmon Young splitting time at DH and in the outfield, the Orioles should be among the league leaders in home runs for the fourth consecutive season.
92-70, 1st in the AL East
The pitching staff is solid and the defense will only make them better as the Orioles will again boast one of the best fielding teams in the Majors. The Orioles have simply established a pedigree for winning in Baltimore. Once the calender turns to May and the club gets healthy, the O’s should cruise to their second straight division title.
Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays were one of the most active teams in the offseason. While the team lost Melky Cabrera to the Chicago White Sox, they signed catcher Russell Martin and first baseman Justin Smoak and traded for third baseman Josh Donaldson and outfielder Michael Saunders. With those players added to a lineup that already included Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion, the Blue Jays boast one of the league’s best lineups from top to bottom.
Donaldson is a huge pickup for this team. Nobody is going to want to face the heart of this order, and the Jays should score a ton of runs this year as a result. Just like all Chris Carter did was catch touchdowns, all Russell Martin does is win. The former All-Star and Gold Glove winner has been to the playoffs in seven of his nine seasons with three different ball clubs. The Jays are hoping that Smoak can help keep Encarnacion healthy as the two should split time between first base and DH.
As for the rest
After the aging R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle, the Blue Jays will rely on three youngsters with 72 career games (44 starts) between them. Drew Hutchinson, Daniel Norris, and Aaron Sanchez make up 3/5 of the Jays starting rotation, which could end up hurting the team. The loss of Marcus Stroman to a season-ending knee injury really devastated this team as Stroman was expected to be the ace of the staff in 2015. The bullpen is also depending on a bunch of young pitchers with little-to-no MLB experience, sprinkled with a few mediocre-at-best veterans.
87-75, 2nd in the AL East
As has been established, the Blue Jays are going to score a ton of runs. But they are also going to give up a ton of runs. We’re looking at a lot of 7-6, 9-8 ball games for this team. Dalton Pompey and Norris are darkhorse candidates for Rookie of the Year honors, but expectations should be tempered. I honestly believe 87 wins may be a little generous, but I’m going to give the offense the benefit of the doubt.
Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox are back! The Red Sox are back! Worst to first in 2015! The baseball world seems to be back on the Boston Bandwagon after the acquisitions of Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. Adding those two players to a lineup that already includes David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, and Mike Napoli should add more than few wins to the dismal performance the team put up in 2014.
Yes, Ramirez and Sandoval are solid pickups. But the analysts, prognosticators and fans alike need to get down from atop the bar and be cutoff. We’re not talking about Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout here. We’re talking about two players whose best years are behind them. Will they make a difference? Absolutely. It’s never a bad thing to add a player who will hit .280 with 20 bombs, let alone two of them. The problem is, they can’t pitch for you.
As for the rest
It’s a shame that Hanley and Pablo can’t pitch, because the Red Sox need all the help they can get. Which Clay Buchholz is going to show up? The 17-game winner with the 2.33 ERA from 2010, or the 8-11, 5.34 ERA version from 2014? Rick Porcello should be solid again, but after him you have Justin Masterson, who has more seasons with an ERA above 4.50 (4) than he does below 4.00 (3), Wade Miley, who has never pitched in the hitter-friendly American League, and Steven Wright, who at age 30 has a grand total of 10 Major League games under his belt (2 starts).
The bullpen has the potential to be very good, but also to be very bad. Kuji Uehara is old and couldn’t get anybody out in August/September last season, which is when a contending ball club will need him the most. That said, when he is on, he is virtually unhittable and he simply doesn’t walk anybody. The Sox need their bullpen to step up in a big way this season, because they will be relying on them quite a bit with such a shaky rotation.
85-77, 3rd in the AL East
I’m giving the Red Sox a fighting chance this season. Pedroia and Ortiz are winners and the new additions should have this team in the race all season. I just can’t see this pitching staff doing enough to get past Baltimore and Toronto.
New York Yankees
The circus that is the New York Yankees has welcomed back their $30 million main attraction, Alex Rodriguez, affectionately known as A-Rod. The 39-year-old active home run leader is expected to be the primary designated hitter for the Bronx Bombers, rejoining a lineup filled with decorated veterans.
The Yankees are hoping to get a decent amount of production out of Rodriguez, once touted as the best player in baseball. The problem is, he’s old, no longer on the juice, and had to sit out a year because of said juice. For $30 million, he’s going to get every opportunity to stick in an already aging lineup. The emphasis there is “aging lineup.” The Yankees are old. Very old. Every starting position player except for Didi Gregorious will be 31-years-old or older by the middle of May.
As for the rest
The Yankees are hoping to stay healthy within their starting rotation. Masahiro Tanaka may be the best pitcher in the American League when healthy, but he already has a slight tear in his UCL, which usually means Tommy John surgery. Tanaka rehabbed the injury last season, returning to make two starts in September. The last pitcher in recent memory to successfully rehab a UCL injury without Tommy John surgery was Ervin Santana, who was just suspended 80 games for PED use.
After Tanaka, C.C. Sabathia and Michael Pineda wil toe the rubber, to be followed by Nathan Eovaldi and Adam Warren. Sabathia seems to have finally hit the inevitable wall that comes with an athlete of his size as he has been virtually ineffective since the end of the 2012 season. Pineda has failed to pitch a full season since his 2011 rookie campaign, and was suspended last season for using pine tar to doctor baseballs. Warren has never been a starter, and Eovaldi has been mediocre at best in his young career. Needless to say, the Yankees starting five is a giant question mark.
83-79, 4th in the AL East
If this were 2009, my prediction for this ball club would be completely different. Unfortunately for New York, it’s 2015. The Yankees are just flat-out old, and have too many injury concerns in their brittle bodies. I personally think that it is unlikely that Tanaka won’t need surgery, and Sabathia’s best years are far behind him now. Joe Girardi is the main reason that this team will finish above .500 as he is one of the best managers in the game today. The back-end of the bullpen should be one of the best in the business with Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances. The Yankees just hope they can get to them with a lead.
Tampa Bay Rays
No David Price. No Ben Zobrist. No Joe Maddon. Three injured starters. The outlook isn’t pretty for a franchise that has been one of the better stories in baseball since 2008. The Rays usually boast the best starting rotation in the AL East. This year, however, may be a different story. Matt Moore is recovering from Tommy John surgery. Alex Cobb has right arm tendinitis. Drew Smyly has left shoulder tendinitis. Things certainly look a mess down in Tampa these days.
Smyly and Cobb should be back by the end of April, so the Rays have that going for them. Moore expects to return to the big league club by June, barring any setbacks. Even still, it usually takes about 18-24 months to fully recover from such a significant surgery. Unfortunately for the Rays, they can’t hit their way out of a wet paper bag, so they need the rotation and bullpen to shoulder the load.
As for the rest
The bullpen should be solid, but getting there with a lead will be difficult. Grant Balfour posted his worst statistical season since 2009 last year, sparking debate of as to whether or not the Orioles were correct to cut ties with the Australian-born reliever after receiving his medical reports last offseason. Jake McGee and Brad Boxberger are solid relievers, though McGee swaps mid-1 ERA seasons with mid-4 ERA seasons and this is due to be a mid-4 season for him.
The lineup has nobody besides Evan Longoria. James Loney is a solid hitter but lacks power, and Desmond Jennings always seems to be swinging for the fences, which negatively affects his production.
74-88, 5th in the AL East
The Rays just don’t have enough pop in their lineup and too many injuries in their rotation. While they will eventually get healthy, the hole they dig for themselves in the first month or two of the season may be too deep to climb out of. New manager Kevin Cash had his hands full upon taking the job, but the rotation gave him a glimmer of hope. Now he just may be in a lose-lose situation.
1. Orioles (92-70)
2. Blue Jays (87-75)
3. Red Sox (85-77)
4. Yankees (83-79)
5. Rays (74-88)
There you have it folks, your 2015 American League East preview. As is always the case, this is up for debate, but do your best to be respectful. Follow me on twitter @PaulValleIII. Here’s to another great season of AL East Baseball.