Breaking down the AL East

Clay Buchholz

Once Major League Baseball added an extra playoff team to both leagues for 2012, many predicted that the vaunted American League East would get three teams into the mix this October. After all, the Red Sox, despite their September from hell, would have made the postseason in 2011 if the current system was in place.

However, consider that the Yankees and Rays are just as formidable on paper as they were last year, if not more, and that the same can be said of the Blue Jays and even the Orioles.

But this season is first and foremost about the Red Sox taking care of in-house issues.

Bobby Valentine outlawed beer in the clubhouse (no word yet on the Popeye’s) and has installed a disciplined work ethic that seems to have gotten the best out of the squad thus far.

If this team gets out to a start similar to last April, however, things will get ugly on Yawkey Way in a hurry. One of those hot starts that the Sox patented once upon a time will do wonders for a franchise that has a ton of question marks.

With that in mind, here is a look at what has to be the best division in baseball, team by team:
 
Boston
Vegas over/under wins: 90
Metro prediction: 89-73

Outlook: No need to rehash all that occurred between Sept. 1 and the start of Spring Training. All that matters is that the Red Sox solidify their rotation and bullpen and that players looking for a bounce-back season (primarily Carl Crawford, Kevin Youkilis and Clay Buchholz) have it. This is a team that could press a bit if it starts slow and the schedule doesn’t help out in that regard — Boston’s first five opponents (Detroit, Toronto, Tampa Bay, Texas, New York) averaged 92 wins last year while their next five averaged 71.2. It may take time for an antsy fan base to be satisfied. Although September gets all the attention in last year’s debacle, April was also a mess. Remember 2-10? If the Sox simply went 4-8 in that opening stretch they would’ve made the playoffs. That is revisionist history at its best, but worth noting.

Key additions:
OF Cody Ross, OF Ryan Sweeney, C Kelly Shoppach, RP Andrew Bailey, RP Mark Melancon, IF Nick Punto, SP Aaron Cook, SP/RP Vicente Padilla.

Key losses:
RP Jonathan Papelbon, SP/RP Tim Wakefield, C Jason Varitek, RF J.D. Drew, SS Marco Scutaro, IF Jed Lowrie.

The good: The offense scored runs in droves last season and will once again rank at or near the top of every significant category. Even if Jacoby Ellsbury has a slight regression, which is possible given how well 2011 went, there are plenty to pick up any slack. Now a full year removed from shoulder surgery and more comfortable in his Red Sox skin, Adrian Gonzalez could be a Triple Crown candidate.

The bad: Despite the presence of Gold Glovers at first and second base and a speedy center fielder, this was a sloppy defensive team at times last season. That will be the case again if Kevin Youkilis looks anything like Mike Lowell did at third base after Lowell began to succumb to injuries (at about the same age, mind you), if Crawford struggles again in left and if Jarrod Saltalamacchia remains erratic behind the dish. When healthy and on their game, all three are solid. For the defense to truly support an uncertain pitching staff, they will need to be.
 
Baltimore
Vegas over/under wins: 69.5
Metro prediction: 71-91

Outlook:
The O’s have not had a winning percentage higher than .457 over the past seven seasons, but are a .470 club (103-116) since Buck Showalter took over late in 2010. Not good, but not nearly as bad as some of the results under previous skippers Sam Perlozzo and Dave Trembley. The question in Baltimore is whether new general manager Dan Duquette can have a similar effect in helping the franchise climb out of the basement. Duquette came aboard in November after a decade out of the front office. His one significant move involved shipping former staff leader Jeremy Guthrie to Colorado for Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom, who will help bolster a bullpen that finished 13th in the AL in ERA for the third straight season.

Key additions:
Hammel, Lindstrom, OF Endy Chavez, RP Luis Ayala

Key losses: DH Vladimir Guerrero, OF Luke Scott, SS Cesar Izturis

The good:
Baltimore smacked 191 home runs last season, good for fourth in the AL, and they ranked seventh in runs scored, the team’s best ranking in that category since 2004. With players like Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Matt Wieters and J.J. Hardy in their primes, and a 40-homer (as well as 200-strikeout) candidate in Mark Reynolds, the O’s will score some runs.

The bad: With Zach Britton sidelined with shoulder inflammation, an already shaky rotation is even shakier entering the season. That doesn’t mean there isn’t some promise here. If Brian Matusz can regain the form that saw him go 7-3 with a 3.60 ERA in the second half of 2010, and if Jake Arrieta can build on a year in which he won 10 of his 22 starts, and if newcomer Wei-Ying Chen can make the adjustment to MLB, and if Hammel can handle AL East lineups (he was 7-15 with a 5.90 ERA in three years at Tampa Bay earlier in his career), then the rotation can be serviceable.

The unknown: Will Brian Roberts ever look like Brian Roberts again? At 34 and set to open the season on the disabled list, it doesn’t seem likely. But if he can work his way back from concussion issues and look anything like he did during his prime from 2004 to 2009, it would be a boon for the Baltimore lineup.

The unknown: Josh Beckett and Jon Lester received plenty of attention after the 2011 collapse, and plenty more as the staff leaders entering 2012. But this rotation falls off a cliff if Clay Buchholz isn’t all that he can be. Buchholz was 6-3 with a 3.48 ERA when his 2011 season came to an early end due to a back injury. That sort of effectiveness over a full year will do just fine.

New York
Vegas over/under wins: 93
Metro prediction: 94-68

Outlook: The sneaky assassins of the offseason remained quiet before gaining two quality arms in the same day by signing Hiroki Kuroda and trading for Michael Pineda. With Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, Freddy Garcia and now Andy Pettitte in the mix, there are candidates to fill out the back of what could be a very solid rotation. Despite the loss of Joba Chamberlain, the bullpen figures to be very good once again (it ranked first in the AL in ERA by a wide margin last year) and there hasn’t been a weak offense in the Bronx in 20 years.

Key additions: Pineda, Kuroda, Pettitte, DH Raul Ibanez,

Key losses: C Jorge Posada, SP Bartolo Colon, RP Luis Ayala.

The good:
It never gets the ink, but New York’s bullpen has been its best asset in recent years. Even with preseason losses to Damaso Marte and Pedro Feliciano, and in-season setbacks for Chamberlain and Rafael Soriano, the Yanks’ relief corps was dominant in 2011. Of course, Mariano Rivera is as solid a foundation as there is, but unheralded guys like Dave Robertson and Cory Wade became standout performers for a unit that boasted a 3.12 ERA.

The bad:
Unless he has a rebound in him, Alex Rodriguez may be just another guy at this point in time. Consider the precipitous decline in OPS over the past five years: 1.067, .965, .933, .847, and .823. He has averaged only 124.5 games since 2009. Oh, and he’s still owed $143 million by the Yanks. Rodriguez is still dangerous, but he has to stop this slide to even come close to living up to the remainder of the contract.

Tampa Bay
Vegas over/under wins: 86.5
Metro prediction: 91-71

Outlook
: Yours truly penned these words for another outlet last August 16, when the Rays were nine games behind the Sox and Yanks, long before all y’all even considered a September swoon: “Don’t quit on [Joe] Maddon’s bunch just yet.” The reason for that statement was in large part because the Rays and Red Sox still had to play 10 times, and in even larger part because Tampa Bay’s pitching was so far superior to Boston’s at the time, a point that was emphasized as the Rays took eight of those 10 games with the Red Sox and, well, you know the rest. That pitching advantage remains in place for Maddon’s crew, and it may be even better with the addition to the rotation of Matt Moore, widely considered the top young arm in all of baseball.

Key additions: 1B Carlos Pena, DH Luke Scott, C Jose Molina, IF Jeff Keppinger

Key losses
: OF/DH Johnny Damon, 1B Casey Kotchman, RP Juan Cruz, C Kelly Shoppach

The good:
Aside from a top-notch rotation, the Rays should have an improved, if not spectacular, offense. Evan Longoria is healthy after a difficult season in which he was hampered by a hand injury. Pena returns to man first base. B.J. Upton made some strides after two off years. And leadoff man Desmond Jennings, one of last year’s second-half catalysts, will be in the lineup Opening Day.

The bad: Upton is banged up, as is backup outfielder Sam Fuld, and both may start the season on the disabled list. Upton hasn’t played since March 14, when he hurt his back in a collision with Jennings. Fuld has a strained right wrist.

Toronto
Vegas over/under wins: 80.5
Metro: 82-80

Outlook: Anyone who’s ever spent time with John Farrell appreciates his approach to the game. His impact on the Jays was evident in 2011. There just wasn’t quite enough talent. But 2012 might be different. An extremely young and talented pitching staff, led by 15-game winner Ricky Romero, has another year of seasoning and may soon be able to match what was and still is a solid offensive attack.

Key additions: C Jeff Mathis, IF Omar Vizquel

Key losses: C Jose Molina, RP Jon Rauch, RP Frank Francisco, RP Shawn Camp

The good: When you start with Jose Bautista, you start at a good point. He followed up his breakout 2010 campaign in fine fashion, leading the AL in home runs, walks, slugging percentage and OPS. To rehash, Jose Bautista = good.

The bad: Batting average is somewhat of an old-school stat these days, but for those who still care about it Toronto has to be a talking point. The club hit a measly .249 last year; seven players who had at least 133 at-bats all batted .238 or lower. Farrell has some power hitters and he is an aggressive manager on the bases, but when half the lineup is hitting .220 he is often forced to wait around for solo homers.

The unknown:
Perhaps the most intriguing member of the Blue Jays is right-hander Brandon Morrow, who possesses a quality arsenal but has work to do to realize his full potential. In his second full season as a starter, Morrow led AL starters in strikeouts per nine innings (10.2) but had an ERA over 5.00 until he closed with a flourish. The 27-year-old is a great breakout candidate if he can discover consistency.



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