Saturday, March 8, 2014

MLB 2014: American League East

My countdown to the 2014 Major League Baseball season begins here, with predictions for the upcoming season in the always rough-n-tumble American League East Division.

This is the home of the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox, winners of three rings over the past decade.

It is also the home of baseball's crown jewel franchise, the New York Yankees. A year ago, the Yanks struggled through injury and controversy during a swan song season for legendary closer Mariano Rivera. This year it's equally legendary shortstop Derek Jeter's turn.

Remember that I said it here: there is simply no more important player to the success or struggle of their team in the division in the coming season than the Yankees team captain.

The Alex Rodriguez controversy may now be in their rear view mirror, but his absence leaves a gaping hole for now at 3rd base. With the departure of superstar 2nd baseman Robinson Cano to Seattle via free agency, half of the Yanks infield is suspect.

Jeter must stay healthy all year, and come through with a season resembling his career norms in production, if New York is to have any chance at catching Boston.

That said, here is my predicted order of finish for the 2014 American League East Division:

1) Boston Red Sox
There is simply no reason to not pick the defending champs to successfully defend their crown. A year ago, Boston went from worst-to-first and a World Series title. With reasonable health, they will be one of the top contenders for that title again in 2014. The infield features proven gamer vets on the right side in Mike Napoli and Dustin Pedroia, and young star-quality on the left side in shortstop Xander Boegarts and 3rd baseman Will Middlebrooks. Catching is now in the capable hands of veteran A.J. Pierzynski. The outfield is a strong, eclectic mix of Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava, Jonny Gomes, Jackie Bradley Jr, and the comebacking Grady Sizemore. And then there is the ever-present DH and team leader in David 'Big Papi' Ortiz. On the mound, the Bosox come at you with a strong 4-man rotation of Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Jake Peavy. Their 5th starter, Felix Doubront, is more than capable on his turn. They signed veteran Chris Capuano for insurance, and have enviable depth building up in their farm system should injuries strike. In the bullpen, Koji Uehara was a revelation a year ago, and is back as the closer. His support now includes former Cardinals closer Edward Mujica. There is plenty of talent in the rest of the division. But the Red Sox have the talent, depth, and versatility to win it again, and keep on winning for the foreseeable future.

2) Tampa Bay Rays
The consistent divisional over-achievers appear primed once again, led by manager Joe Maddon, one of the very best in the game, to contend for a playoff spot. They may not have enough offense to stay with Boston, but pitching is the name of the game in Tampa, and the Rays have plenty of it. Ace lefty David Price fronts the rotation which also includes talented youngsters Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Chris Archer, and Jake Odorizzi. Moore has a ton of talent in his own left arm, and if he can fully harness it, he could become a Cy Young contender and turn Price into trade bait, especially if Tampa falls out of contention early for some reason. The bullpen has tremendous depth, including experienced setup man Heath Bell and new closer Grant Balfour. The everyday lineup is led by 3rd baseman Evan Longoria, the single most irreplaceable player in the Rays batting order. The rest of the infield is manned by veteran, strong-gloved 1st baseman James Loney, versatile 2nd sacker Ben Zobrist, and another strong glove in shortstop Yunel Escobar. Behind the plate, the Ryan Hanigan-Jose Molina combo is steady. The outfield features a pair of young players that really need to produce in order for the Rays to contend for more than a Wildcard. Those players are rightfielder Wil Myers and centerfielder Desmond Jennings. Matt Joyce provides a veteran bat to split leftfield and DH at-bats with David DeJesus. Sean Rodriguez and Logan Forsythe are capable, versatile IF/OF backups, but not impact players if called upon to do much more in the event of key injuries. As usual, this Rays group gives Maddon many options and buttons to push. If most of the key guys stay healthy, and he keeps on pushing the right ones, there is no reason that Tampa shouldn't again be a strong post-season contender.

3) New York Yankees
The Yanks finished tied for 3rd a year ago, and despite signing a few high-profile, high-salaried free agents, they simply have not gotten noticeably better for the 2014 season. Why? Because they lost almost as much as they gained. This is a tough team to get a read on for a number of reasons. In the infield, they are counting on full comebacks from Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter. Tex played just 15 games a year ago, and will play the season at 34 years of age. The Captain turns 40 this summer, and played in just 17 games a year ago. With all-star 2nd baseman Robinson Cano and PED-tainted star 3rd baseman Alex Rodriguez both gone, full comebacks to their old selves is a must for New York to do anything. In the outfield, the Yanks are much better off, with speedy Brett Gardner returning and now joined by a pair of talented free agent signees in centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury and rightfielder Carlos Beltran. The team also signed all-star catcher Brian McCann, who should be come a true superstar and likely the next team leader in the Bronx. Alfonso Soriano is back as the DH, and teams with Ichiro Suzuki to give the club some nice, veteran depth. On the mound, C.C. Sabathia still leads the rotation, and needs to return to Ace-level. A year ago, his ERA rose by almost a run-and-a-half, and he allowed more hits than innings pitched for the first time in his big league career. In better shape, he must show that 2013 wasn't the start of a steady career slippage. Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova give the club two more solid options. But it may be big Japanese free agent signee Masahiro Tanaka whose performance helps push the club to contend for a Wildcard playoff spot. Another key will be David Robertson, one of the best setup men in the game for the last few years, who now takes on the unenviable task of following in legendary closer Mariano Rivera's footsteps. The rest of the bullpen is largely a question mark, and this group could prove to be fatally flawed. The Yankees have big questions in their infield and bullpen. If they stay healthy and answer those questions with in-season moves, there are enough stars to contend. Those are a lot of "ifs" for baseball's richest franchise.

4) Baltimore Orioles
After a Cinderella playoff season in 2012, the O's again had a winning record a year ago, but slipped back to a tie for 3rd with the Yankees. They could finish anywhere from 2nd to 5th in 2014, and it will be their pitching staff that tells the final tale. Ubaldo Jimenez was a late-winter signing as a free agent, and if he approximates his fine comeback season from a year ago in Cleveland, he will be just what the doctor ordered at the front of manager Buck Showalter's rotation. His presence allows youngsters Miguel Gonzalez, Chris Tillman, and Bud Norris to drop back to more comfortable supporting roles. Wei-Yin Chen gives Baltimore depth and a nice 5th option as well. In the bullpen, Tommy Hunter likely gets the first shot at closing. Whomever gets that job has a lot to replace, as Jim Johnson left via free agency and took consecutive 50-save seasons with him. There are a number of interesting, talented arms that should be able to fill out the pen, including strong setup man Darren O'Day. The everyday lineup is much more dependable and talented. A year ago, 1st baseman Chris Davis emerged as one of baseball's top run producers. Along with shortstop J.J. Hardy and mega-talented youngster Manny Machado on the left side, the infield should be a strength for Baltimore. That depends on Machado himself coming back fully from off-season knee surgery, but the future star has progressed nicely to this point. They could use either Jonathan Schoop or Ryan Flaherty to emerge as a true MLB-starting caliber 2nd baseman to fullly solidify the group. In the outfield, the trio of Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, and Nolan Reimold has as much talent as any in the game if they stay healthy. The Orioles signed veteran slugger Nelson Cruz, who will play some outfield and be the regular DH. His power bat really lengthens the O's offense. Catcher Matt Wieters is a longball threat and one of the game's best defenders. There is no proven bench, so the starters need to stay healthy and productive. If Buck finds a way to get the rotation to over-achieve a bit, the Orioles can contend for a playoff berth. If injuries strike the lineup and the pitching proves average or worse, they could sink to the bottom.

5) Toronto Blue Jays
A year ago, Toronto had gone on an off-season free agent shopping spree, and the results had them pegged as divisional favorites by many, including me. Now a year later, with basically the same crew back, I'm picking them for the AL East basement. What went wrong? Last year it was the tell-tale combination of injuries and under-performance. This year, it's the fact that the rest of the division has improved, while the Jays have much to prove. The everyday lineup has enough big bats to bash with anyone, if they stay healthy. The big pieces are 1st baseman Edwin Encarnacion, shortstop Jose Reyes, and outfielder Jose Bautista. 3rd baseman Brett Lawrie is a potential all-star talent who the club is counting on to develop quickly to fulfill that potential. The outfield has Colby Rasmus and Melky Cabrera, a pair of talented players, each with something to prove in 2014. If those last three come through, this lineup will be truly deep. There might be a hole at 2nd base, but young Ryan Goins will get first shot, and he appears to at least be a nice glove man. Veteran catchers Dioner Navarro and Josh Thole should keep them competitive at that position. The bullpen has a chance to be real good, especially if closer Casey Janssen can be healthy and pitches to his potential. Arms including Aaron Loup, Steve Delabar, and Sergio Santos give them talent and depth. The rotation is where the big questions lie, and possibly where their fatal flaw lies as well. Mark Buehrle is one of the most consistent, steady winners in the game over the last decade. At 35-yrs old this season, he needs to stay that consistent, because every other arm in that rotation is a question mark. Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey is now 39-years old, and while he wasn't bad a year ago, he was nowhere near the Cy Young Award winner that he had been in his final Mets season of 2012. Following the 2011 season, Brandon Morrow looked like one of the best starting pitchers emerging in the game, but each of the last two seasons has been injury-marred. He has the talent to be a big winner, but turning 30 this summer he needs to stay healthy. After those three, it's a big drop to choices like J.A. Happ, Esmil Rogers, Drew Hutchison, and Todd Redmond. Unless the Blue Jays somehow find answers in that rotation, they will find it tough to keep up in this division over time, despite their offensive talents.

I don't see any of the other teams as having the overall depth and talent to unseat the Red Sox at the top. Boston remains a strong World Series contender once again. The rest of the clubs have the talent to finish 2nd and to gain a Wildcard playoff spot. They also have enough questions to finish 5th and find themselves dismantling and rebuilding by the time it's all over. Watching the 2014 season play out should be no more interesting in MLB than here in the American League East Division.

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