So with opening day (and this time we mean it man… sorry Australia!) only a couple of days away, having looked at our Blue Jays and how their chances of making the playoffs are about the same as those Jesus gave to a rich man making it to heaven, let’s look at their competition a little…
the AL EAST
BALTIMORE– birds of a feather, the Orioles, like the Blue Jays should have hitting galore, but lack the pitching to let them fly to any lofty heights. Chris Davis is the new Jose Bautista, the type of guy people look at and either raise their eyebrows, or else confidently pronounce a fluke. For Bautista, that was three years ago and he’s proven his nay-sayers wrong, as Davis will do this season in Maryland. He may not clip 53 homers again, but he’s for real and will anchor a solid lineup. Matt Wieters will likely rebound from his poor ’13 at the plate, but even if he doesn’t, he’s still a solid, durable catcher . Nelson Cruz should do fine in the little bandbox of a stadium and if – if- he stays healthy, might hit 40 dingers. Manny Machado is the anti-Trout: perhaps the best all-round young player in the game, but largely unnoticed… that will finally change this year if his knee is fully-healed from last year’s late season injury. A batting title to go with another Gold Glove for MM wouldn’t be a total surprise. JJ Hardy and Adam Jones will help the O’s score a lot of runs again. But the pitching… anyone remember Jay Sherman on TV’s “The Critic”. His catchphrase is all you need to know about it- “it STINKS”.
Sure, the O’s got Ubaldo Jimenez, not a bad addition to the rotation, although for all his ability, he’s still only put together two very good half-seasons in his career (first half of ’10 with Colorado, last half of last year in Cleveland). If he manages to put it all together all year, he should compete for the Cy Young. Even if he matches his 13-9 and 3.30 of last year, it’ll be money well-spent by the orange and black. But if he gets wild, or buckles under the pressure of being the face and ace of the staff, not so much. Either way, the rest of the rotation is poor at best and behind them there’s no Jim Johnson. While wracking the nerves of the diehards over the past two seasons, he did manage to record back-to-back 50 save seasons. No one jumps out as an obvious replacement.
Bottom line is that the Orioles might be in the bottom. Prediction– they’ll fight the East’s other birds for last place all season, and in the end 77 wins, 5th place.
BOSTON– last year of course, the Red Sox went from worst to first in the division and then went all the way. Repeating as champions is a tough task, but don’t discount the possibility of it happening. After all, the 2012 Bobby Valentine wreck of a season was the only time in the past ten they tallied fewer than 86 wins, and they’re back relatively unchanged.
Granted, Jacoby Ellsbury and his reliable near .300 bat, 50 stolen bases is tough to replace. The Sox seem so confident/arrogant they didn’t even bother to try really, though if Grady Sizemore miraculously turns back time by half a dozen years, he might be an adequate replacement CF and lead-off hitter. Don’t count on that happening, but do count on the likes of Pedroia, Ortiz and Napoli putting up decent enough numbers again and obnoxious AJ Pierzynski to fit in perfectly. Added to a healthy rotation with two of the best in the division (Lester and Bucholz) rounded out by Lackey and Peavy- not chopped liver themselves- and the team should be in good shape to contend deep into October once again.
Sure, 38 year old David Ortiz may not be able to hit .300 this time around and Jackie Bradley’s time may not be now (or may not ever come) but there are still to many strengths in Beantown to expect less than a playoff berth yet again. Prediction – 90 wins, first place.
New York- the time’s are a-changin’… for the first time in recent memory the Yanks aren’t baseball’s biggest spenders (the west coast spoiled brats, the Dodgers, have outspent the east coast’s) and for the first time since last century, a 9th inning lead isn’t a sure thing anymore being handed over to Mariano Rivera. The Y’s had an interesting off-season, adding a high-profile pitcher and two high-profile outfielders to an already over-stocked OF but doing little about an infield that was falling apart at the seams. So we have the likes of Alfonso Soriano, who seemed rejuvenated upon being traded to the Bronx last year (50 RBI in 58 games) and future Hall-of-Famer Ichiro scuffling to find playing time alongside Jacoby Ellsbury, Brent Gardner and Carlos Beltran and Vernon Wells being paid a lot of money- a whole lot- to merely stay home and grow turnips. Still, hard to doubt the wisdom of adding Beltran (if the pinstripers make the playoffs he alone should get them through at least one round) and rubbing the Sox nose in it by stealing away Ellsbury, who will give them their best lead-off hitter in several years. Brian McCann is among the best catchers in baseball, both at the plate and behind it, so his addition is a big plus too. But between the plate and the outfield- yikes!
If Brian Cashman could channel some Marty McFly and go back to the future (or at least back to about 2008), they’d be in great shape with Teixera, Brian Roberts and Jeter. But this ain’t 2008 and this ain’t your Daddy’s Derek Jeter. Or maybe it is, that’s the problem– at 40, he’s much respected and will have a great ‘retirement tour’, but he’s been listed as a defensive liability at short for years now and must be questioned as even a major league hitter anymore, having struggled mightily in ’13 when healthy and hitting in the .140 area this spring. Roberts isn’t going to be a good replacement for Robinson Cano even if he’s healthy (few would be), but when was the last time he managed to play over half a season? (Answer- 2009. He’s averaged 48 games a season since). And Brendan Ryan and/or Kelly Johnson will spell “mediocrity” at third, albeit at a rate about $25M less , and with less drama, than if A-Rod were eligible to do the same for them.
The big question of course, is just what Masahiro Tanaka brings to the mound with him. No one expects him to be 24-0 here, like he was last year in Japan, but if the Yanks get the second coming of Yu Darvish rather than the second coming of Kai Igawa, they’ll be happy and should have a decent staff with CC (maybe not the Sabathia of yore but still an adequate and durable lefty) , Ivan Nova and seemingly ageless Hiroki Kiruda. My guess is that Tanaka will settle in nicely but may tire out by late summer. About 14-9 and maybe 190 innings seems a good bet.
The ‘pen will seem foreign and lacking without Mo, but is still better than average. Dave Robertson can probably do Ok as closer assuming the pressure of being compared to #42 doesn’t get to him. Prediction– 88 wins, second place.
Tampa Bay– Tampa is the new Toronto… that is to say, they are the trendy team to pick to win it all this season, as the Jays were last year. And we know how well that turned out… The Rays really do merit admiration mind you, seeming to find ways to win year in, year out, despite lacking a decent operating budget or fanbase on the Gulf coast. Joe Maddon is one of the few managers who actually seems to “manage” both on-field and off, and the results are hard to argue with.
So this year David Price will pitch to open up the season tomorrow against the Jays, a surprise in itself since he was erased from the Tampa roster last November by pundits everywhere who assumed the Rays would trade him, as they did James Shields last year, Matt Garza before him and almost every other decent player they’ve had who’s eligble for more than minimum wage pay. They didn’t and thus open with the best rotation in the division, with youngsters Alex Cobb,Matt Moore and perhaps Jake Odorizzi looking to live upto his high-ceiling potential after 4 lacklustre kicks at the can last year. However, his 25 runners allowed in 17 innings this spring suggest he may still be a few months, or even a season off.
The offense is not spectacular, but decent, and Maddon always finds ways for them to push runs across. Tampa hitting in the early 21st Century is like the city of Detroit or Cleveland in the early 20th century—a manufacturing powerhouse. Desmond Jennings will get on often for Evan Longoria and reigning Rookie of the Year Wil Myers, meanwhile the rest of the lineup will bunt, walk, hit dribbles or do whatever it takes to put across a run or two to give the starters a chance. I expect big things from Myers, but am not sure Longoria’s .269, 88 RBI’s wasn’t more typical than the atypical ‘off” year most people thought.
The bullpen with Grant Balfour in to replace Fernando Rodney, should be fine again. However, with the likes of Kelly Johnson, Luke Scott and Jamey Wright all gone with little in way of replacements, this is not a team that will have a deep bench or much capacity to withstand injury. If they are hot, maybe they’ll add a body or two in July to make the run for it everyone seems to think they have in them. On the other hand, a key injury or two, or a long losing streak in the first couple of months will mean Bye Bye Mr Price and Hello Rebuild, Volume 18. Predicition– 84 wins, third place.
Toronto– I”ve already covered the Jays here this week, so a brief summary: the hitting should be dynamic if the key players stay healthy (Jose Bautista and Melky Cabrera had very impressive springs), the bullpen is decent – although it’s disconcerting that Casey Janssen is not fully back and starts on the DL, but the starting rotation is very weak after RA Dickey and Mark Buehrle, both of whom should have good seasons but are not really ‘staff ace” types. Drew Hutchison could be the surprise starter to watch, but still there are too many “ifs” to feel confident. Prediction– 79 wins, fourth place.
And now, the American League…
joined in progress !
Baltimore: birds of a feather… like their divisional rivals, the Blue jays, the Orioles have decided to harken back to their glory days. Unfortunately for fans in both cities, both teams chose to do so by revisiting old logos and uniforms rather than doing anything terribly substantial to make their team competitive. Colorado trade netted them two mediocre pitchers for the price of one slightly better than mediocre one and Tommy Hunter has shown flashes of brilliance while in Texas but all in all nothing much to suggest the O’s can improve from their AL worst 4.89 ERA of last year and given the loss of Vladmir Guerrero and Luke Scott there’s little to suggest a major improvement in weak offense. At least they didn’t make any bone-headed moves to bring in over-the-hill free agents that handcuff the small budget team financially this off season.
Ace: Matt Wieters, at 25 quickly en route to becoming the best all-around catcher in the league… will improve on his .262 avg, 22 homers of last year, doesn’t need to improve his deserved Gold Glove.
Wild Card: JJ Hardy- had major comeback year last season with unexpected power (30 homers, .491 slugging) but this followed several years of declining results. Which Hardy will present himself this year.
Joker: Kevin Gregg- never a great closer, now at 34 walks and runs allowed are up, velocity down. Marginal as a middle reliever, a washup in closer’s role.
2012 Prediction: 65 wins, 5th place. But moving up in cap sales
Boston: there are two types of people in the world- Red Sox fans and people who aren’t gratingly annoying. The latter group had reason to grin last fall after the historic collapse of the cocky Sox and the subsequent name-calling and blame assigning from within. For those of us not in the “Red Sox nation” we should have reason to grin again– there’s not much to suggest the Green Monster Mob will have to much to be arrogant about in ’12. there answer to a completely disfunctional clubhouse was not the expected huge revamp but rather a few dubious tweaks and a change in management as if Terry Francona was responsible for the lack of focus and discord.
Then again, maybe he was. It is a manager’s job to manage, and he seemed incapable of controlling the 25 big egos on his bench. Odds don’t favour firy Bobby Valentine doing much better and few of the small changes to the roster can be seen adding much value. Sure Cody Ross was a one-man wrecking crew for the Giants in the 2010 playoffs but he followed up his championship with a mere .240 avg/.730 OPS for san Fran last year- hardly the numbers of an everyday outfielder for a supposedly championship-calibre team. Andrew Bailey was hardly a replacement for Jon papelbon, but now he isn’t at all thanks to his ligament surgery in spring training. The bullpen is a mess, even when Carl Crawford returns to the roster the outfield is only mid-pack and after Jon lester and Josh Beckett, who’s in the rotation? Bucholz has ongoing back troubles, Daniel Bard has a good repetoire of pitches (as he showed already against the Jays in his first game of year) but will be on a strict innings limit after moving from the bullpen and Felix Doubront? The highly touted prospect is only 6-8 down the road in Pawtucket over the past two years and saw his minor league ERA rise by a full run in 2012. And David Ortiz, brilliant at times last year but showing signs of long-term decline, ain’t getting any younger- or slimmer.
This is still a decent enough club. But it is far from a team ready to give New England fans something to be annoying us about.
Ace: Jacoby Ellsbury- only coming into his prime now, could even up his 212 hits and 39 steals of last year
wild Card: Carl Crawford- still young enough to regain form as a top-flight outfielder but has health issues and didn’t seem that comfortable in front of Green Monster last year.
Joker: Ryan Sweeney- one home run and an anemic .341 slugging last year with Oakland. Not a good thing when a player usually evokes a “Hey! Wasn’t his brother a decent player once?” type comment.
2012 Prediction: 86 wins, 3rd place
New York: Four out of six USA todaywriters pick the pinstripes to win the division again. Yet only one of the four chooses them to advance to the World Series. Such is life for the modern day Yankees, a source of irritation to their legion of fans who note that there are already kids in kindergarten that don’t recall ever being to a World Series parade!
In general, not a lot has changed in the Bronx in the off-season. They downloaded AJ Burnett and a few bucks of his salary (a plus) but also saw Jorge Posada retire (a con). The team still has a huge payroll, talent to spare, the best second baseman in the game and a great bullpen. However, it also boasts a pitching staff similar to last year’s when it was the oldest in the league and as many as 6 players in the everyday lineup over 30 and on the downslope of their careers. Sure Jeter can still play; to suggest otherwise is dumb. However, can he still play at an all-star level? More to the point, will he and his cronies have enough gas in the tank come October to compete?
My guess is that young Michael Pineda will really shine in his sophomore year , Hiroki Kuroda will be an adequate #5 starter but not match his 202 innings and low ERA of last year and Robinson Cano will make an even stronger case for MVP after winning a batting championship and Gold Glove.
Ace: Robinson Cano- 46 doubles, 118 RBI last year and he’s still a comparative unknown on this squad.
Wild Card: Phil Hughes- both his role and his reliability are in question
joker: none. Sorry folks, this team really doesn’t have any gaping holes in the lineup nor atrocious players
2012 Prediction:97 wins, 1st place. But how far will that take them come October?
Next up we look at the Rays and the Jays… which one will take second place and a probable invite to the post-season?