April 4, 2009

The best for last

by Dan Bilicki In: Baseball

I decided right from the beginning of these MLB division previews that the AL East would go last. Why? Because it’s the best division in baseball! After the Rays emerged as a surprisingly viable contender last season, it made the East heads and tails above the other five groups. Everything you want is in the AL East: A world-class rivalry like Red Sox-Yankees, a plucky, young do-gooder team (who happens to be the reigning AL Champion), the lone international team and a team that’s finally learned that it’s better to build from prospects than over-priced free agents.

I didn’t believe in the Rays last year and I still don’t believe in them. Last year just feels like a one-year aberration and they should sink back into the pack in 2009. They have built up some good youth, as we saw last year, but they had a few too many tremendous performances from guys who aren’t likely to do it again. They won’t fall back to the bottom of the division, but the wild card might be their ceiling – that’s a lofty one in my eyes.

The Yankees did their usual, Yankee thing this off-season, went out and threw a whole bunch of cash at two of the top-three free agents on the market. Adding Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia were arguably the two biggest additions in all of baseball. Signing A.J. Burnett away from the Jays will also help, giving them a solid No. 2 or 3 in the rotation if he comes through too. I wouldn’t bet on him repeating his 2008 numbers though. Then, bringing in Nick Swisher to play an ultra-utility/clubhouse clown role might have been the move that makes the most impact out of all the new names in the Bronx. Of course, there’s also the A-Roid drama and his injury to deal with but maybe taking the first month off will help him stay away from his usual late season fade this year.

Boston went out this off-season, tried to land Mark Teixeira, failed and ended up taking $5-million flyers on two all-star calibre pitchers, John Smoltz and Brad Penny. That sickens me. In a time when the world is in economically stressed, the Red Sox just threw money at two guys who might not even work out. The Red Sox are, however, bringing back essentially the same team they had the end of last season except with a bit better pitching staff and another year of experience for the kids. There’s no reason to believe that Red Sox Nation won’t enjoy another year in the post-season.

Then, there’s the bottom of the division: Baltimore and Toronto.

Baltimore is still a few seasons away from contending. They’ve build a good, young lineup that is full of blue chippers and could be a force in a season or two. Look at their outfield: Nick Markakis, Adam Jones and Felix Pie make up one of the best young trios out there and with catcher Matt Weiters destined for greatness, all the building blocks are in place. Except for on the mound that is; when your ace is Jeremy Guthrie and your No. 2, 3 and 4 guys (Koji Uehara, Danys Baez and Hayden Penn) haven’t pitched in the major, ever, you’re going to be in trouble. Don’t expect too much from the O’s, unless their bats develop faster than expected.

Up north, there’re two huge problems that are impossible to be addressed this season, making this year, ultimately, lost. First, injuries have already decimated the Jays biggest strength: Pitching. With Shaun Marcum out for the season, Dustin McGowan out for at least two months and not much depth on the mound past Roy Halladay, it’s very hard to believe that the Jays can repeat leading the majors in ERA this year. Throw in the fact that B.J. Ryan’s velocity is very down and Scott Downs may have close and even their once-strong bullpen isn’t looking too great. Unless the Jays’ bats show up and play, maybe, twice as well as they did last year, the Jays should be looking forward to next year.

But speaking of next year, there’s that second big problem they have: Their lame duck GM, J.P. Riccardi. Since bursting onto the job and claiming the Jays could make the playoffs in four seasons, seven years have passed. He hasn’t shown a great adeptness at drafting or building a good lineup. His course has run at the Rogers Centre for too long now and he should have been fired last season, when the team’s president was dismissed. It’s time for the Jays to move on in more ways than one.

Prediction:
1st: Boston Red Sox
2nd: New York Yankees *-Wild card winner
3rd: Tampa Bay Rays
4th: Toronto Blue Jays
5th: Baltimore Orioles

Leave a Reply