Wednesday, April 8, 2009

AL East preview


In no particular order, I'll spend the next few days posting predictions for the upcoming season. If I'm lucky, I'll end up posting previews for all 30 teams.

The fact is, I started this blog too late, and may only have time to write predictions for the AL (which I'd choose because I happened to write my AL East predictions first) before it'd be too far into the season and such predictions would seem silly. Rocky start to things, I know. Anyway, here's my preview for the AL East in '09:

Boston Red Sox

’08 in a nutshell:

On the surface, not much changed from the year before. They won 95 games, just one fewer than in their championship season. Injuries, however, played a big role during the campaign. David Ortiz struggled through the year with an injured wrist. JD Drew played superbly through mid-August, then went down with a bad back.

Despite the injuries, they got a bizarrely effective season from Daisuke Matsuzaka (18 wins, 2.90 ERA but only 167 2/3 innings pitched because of control trouble)and a breakout season from Jon Lester to help counter Josh Beckett’s inconsistent year. Offensively, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia booth delivered tremendous seasons to help carry the team to 845 runs, 2nd best in the AL. In the end, however, their run was ended by a tremendously talented Rays team.

Outlook for this season:

I hate to sound like I’m copping out, but there are a lot of questions remaining to be answered with this team. Will Ortiz resemble his usual dominant self? Will Beckett return to form? Was there any fluke involved in Youkilis’ and Pedroia’s ’08 seasons? Can Daisuke continue to be so wild and keep on preventing runs?

One thing should be for certain: the bullpen is radically improved and a hell of a lot deeper. The additions of Takashi Saito and Ramon Ramirez will give the Sox a lot more late inning flexibility and not force the load upon Hideki Okajima.

And hey, if Ortiz comes back full force and Pedroia and Youkilis can repeat their ’08 campaigns, this team can be a juggernaut. I don’t think it’s all going to align that well. However, I still think this team is potentially the most talented in the AL, and they’ll edge the Rays and Yankees for the AL East title. Prediction: 1st in the AL East. Go ahead and call me a homer.

Tampa Bay Rays:

’08 in a nutshell:

How the hell did this team skyrocket from the AL’s laughingstock to 97 wins and the pennant? Pitching, my friends, pitching. Their offense actually didn’t improve much at all, scoring 774 runs (9th in the AL) and posted a 99 OPS+, down from 782 (8th) and 102 OPS+ the year before.

Their pitching, however, experienced a sea change. Their starters logged 40 more total innings in ’08 than in ’07, and posted a cumulative ERA that was 1.25 runs lower. All five Rays main starters posted better than league average ERAs and none pitched fewer than 152 innings. Only Scott Kazmir made fewer than 30 starts, with 27.

In 2007, the Rays bullpen was shockingly, depressingly, hilariously awful. They posted a 6.16 ERA and a 1.74 WHIP (walks+hits per inning pitched)over 497 total innings. Opposing offenses put up a .303/.382/.493 line against them, all worst in the league. They allowed 20 more home runs and 129 more total bases than any other AL bullpen. I could do this for days.

Their reversal in ’08 was staggering. Their ERA dropped to 3.55, third in the AL. Their WHIP dropped to 1.26. Their opponents’ batting line fell to .220/.309/.360.

As a whole, the Rays allowed 273 fewer runs in ’08 than in ’07. That’ll win you a lot of ballgames.

’09 outlook:

In the wake of the Yankee offseason spending spree and the Red Sox’ spackling of their bullpen (with their fingers crossed for better team health), the Rays are getting a tad overlooked. I love their signing of Pat Burrell, and Evan Longoria will likely continue to improve. They still have a fantastic, young starting rotation (bolstered by the addition of David Price to the starting rotation). I expect some regression from their bullpen, particularly from JP Howell (unexpectedly outstanding last year) which will cost them the division, but they’ll be good enough to take second. Prediction: 2nd in the AL East, Wild Card Winners.

New York Yankees

’08 in a nutshell

The Yanks slogged through last season with a mediocre offense that finished just 7th in runs after having placed 1st or 2nd in the previous four seasons. The most drastic difference on offence came at catcher. After his tremendous ’07 season, Posada got injured and played in only 51 games, just 30 at catcher. In the games he did play, his numbers didn’t compare to the year before (.268, .364, .411 in 195 plate appearances), but they obliterated the pathetic numbers his replacements put up. Check these lines out:

Jose Molina: 297 PA, .216/.253/.313, 51 OPS+

Chad Moeller: 103 PA, .228/.283/.299 69 OPS+

Ivan Rodriguez: 101 PA, .219/.257/.323, 51 OPS+

That’s not gonna cut it.

2009 outlook: Mark Teixeira will be a big boost to the lineup, and he’ll have to hold fort until A-Rod returns. However, there remain concerns about that lineup, particularly with Jeter and Johnny Damon atop the lineup, both of whom will be on the wrong side of 35 by season’s end. Same for Hideki Matsui. This offense should improve, but I doubt they’ll be a juggernaut.

Pitching wise, the Yanks should see a marked improvement, especially with Sabathia eating up innings. The Yanks have had huge trouble getting their starters to stay in the game; in the last two seasons, they’ve placed 11th and 12th in the AL in starter innings pitched, respectively. He and a healthy Burnett will be a boon to the Yankee pitching staff simply by providing lots and lots of quality innings.

Prediction: The Yanks will be back in the thick of the race this year, but I still think they lack the talent of the Rays and Red Sox. The Yanks will finish third in the AL East again, which could very well mean they’re still the third or fourth best team in baseball. Prediction: 3rd place.

Toronto Blue Jays:

’08 in a nutshell:

Oh the perils of playing in a tough division. The Jays posted the best team ERA in baseball last season. That alone would probably have netted them a division title in any other division. Hell, they had a better run differential than the 100-win Angels, who played dregs in the AL West. But the Jays play in the AL East, and their lifeless bats (11th in the AL with 714 runs) cost them dearly. They lost a league-worst 23 games in which they allowed 3 or fewer runs.

Outlook for ‘09:On one hand, that mark seems almost unsustainably bad. On the other, they haven’t improved much at all, without any significant pickups for their lineup. Unless their best current hitters (Vernon Wells, Alexis Rios) pick up their output, or the young Travis Snider breaks out, it’ll be another tough year for this Jays’ offense.

That might not matter quite so much if they still get great pitching and a bit more good luck on their side. Yes, they still have Roy Halladay. But with AJ Burnett gone, Shaun Marcum out for the year after Tommy John surgery, and three unproven starters in David Purcey, Ricky Romero, and Scott Richmond shoring up the rotation (17 combined career starts among them), it could be a rough year in Toronto. Expect them to stumble after three straight winning seasons. Prediction: 4th in the AL East.

Baltimore Orioles:

’08 in a nutshell:

Aw, yes. Last year, the O’s were the red-headed stepkids of the AL East, placing a 18.5 games out of fourth place. As most awful teams are, the Orioles were undone by awful pitching. They allowed 869 runs, second worst in the AL. Their starters logged just 882 innings, 3rd worst in all of baseball. Jeremy Guthrie (3.63 ERA in 190 2/3 innings) was their only decent starting pitcher who logged significant innings. Unfortunately, it’s not getting better for them this season.

Outlook for ’09:

Well, Guthrie’s back. Unfortunately, he’s not getting much help. They have a lot of new faces in their rotation, but none of them are particularly scintillating. Adam Eaton hasn’t posted an ERA+ higher than 100 since 2004. Mark Hendrickson has delivered to rock solid ERAs of 5.21 and 5.45 over the last two seasons. Alfredo Simon has 4 Major League starts. Koji Uehara has none.

At least they have the potentially dominant catcher Matt Wieters waiting in the wings.

Prediction: 5th in the AL East.

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