The American League East in 2011


This division is it… the true battlefield for major league baseball.

In many of the articles, I’ve been talking a lot about arguments you could make this season. How good is Milwaukee’s rotation? Is Colorado the most talented team in the NL West? Could C.J. Wilson get votes for the Cy Young award? Stuff like that. Well… here is the top of the arguments I believe you could successfully attempt to defend…

The top three teams in the AL East are the top three teams in the American League, and three of the top five in all of baseball… maybe three of the top four.


Don’t know. A lot of baseball still needs to be played. And, we’ll get to the obstacles Tampa needs to overcome in a second… not the least of which is two stronger and deeper teams with bigger wallets in their division, and only two playoff spots possible from any single division.

The point is… I really do believe you could take their starting pitching, and Evan Longoria, and the potential of the younger players, and compare them quite favorably to Oakland, Texas, Minnesota, and Chicago. I really do believe they could win the AL Central… the AL West… the NL Central… the NL West. I really do believe the teams that I know… not believe, know… should be better them include Boston, New York (Yankees… though I probably didn’t need to specify that), and Philadelphia, and then we get into that grey area of Atlanta, San Francisco and potential division winners.

Quick… immediate response… first thought that hits your head. Ready?


What did you come up with?

Probably nothing. Fair enough. They’re an afterthought for many people.

Detroit… Oakland… California… all recently good teams or improving clubs that could win a division if things break right in 2011. Right? Ok… each of the three had a worse record than Toronto last season. The Blue Jays won 85 games.

Now think about that for a second, and expand the thought. Four teams in the AL East won 85 or more last season. One that you wouldn’t give more than two seconds of thought about not only had a winning record, they won more that several teams that people think could make a playoff run in 2011. Here’s some more…

Tidbit number one to chew on… The American League East went 431 – 379 in 2010. The Baltimore Orioles were 30-games under .500, and yet the entire 5-team division still played .530 baseball and finished 52-games over .500.

Tidbit number two to chew on… The top three teams in the division won 280 games… or an average of just over 93 each. The top three. Even though, thanks to the unbalanced and vision heavy schedule, each faced the other two for about a quarter of their games.

Boston Red Sox
What I expect in 2011: 97-65, lose in World Series

What they did in 2010: 89-73

Key personnel changes: Have you been under a rock? Adrian Gonzalez… Carl Crawford… Dan Wheeler… Bobby Jenks… a ton of guys on minor league deals that will almost certainly make appearances during the season.

And when you consider the draft picks the departures of Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre will bring back, they really didn’t lose much because they brought in talent, as of right now didn’t add payroll, and they gained draft picks. (In fact, count me as one that believes Beltre will be an anchor in Texas for most, if not all, of his contract.)

My expectations: You’ve read all about it… so let’s see if I can make this short, and yet still impart something different.

First… look at last year’s record. 89-wins. Beckett, Ellsbury, Pedroia, Youkalis, Cameron, and Martinez all missed significant chunks of the regular season due to injury. And they weren’t the only ones missing time. Beckett, Matsuzaka, and Lackey are being asked to “bounce back” because last season they didn’t contribute that much. And yet, (1) the team won 89-games without them contributing much, and, (2) those three are the back of the starting rotation. Gonzalez, Crawford, Wheeler and Jenks were added to the roster that managed to win 89. Plus, right now, Ellsbury, Pedroia, Youkalis and Cameron are all healthy.

Second… they are deep. Cameron… the back-up outfielder… is likely to start on opening day because Texas will probably send lefty C.J. Wilson to the mound. Lowrie… the utility infielder… is mentioned as a possible starter instead of being a role player.

Third… they are deep. Wakefield won’t be starting. He’s headed to the pen. So that’s six starters, along with the guys in the minors. They have one guy in the minors… Okajima… that closed for them many times in recent years. And, their roster features (not including Wakefield), no fewer than four players that have been successfully used as closers (Wheeler, Jenks, Bard and Papelbon).

Fourth… they will score runs.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): I’m really just trying to be fair by not predicting a win total over 100. I mean I suppose alot of things could happen. But… they have so many in-house answers.

If Ellsbury isn’t working out at the top of the order, they make a quick adjustment, hit him ninth, and go with some fashion of Crawford – Pedroia – Gonzalez – Youkalis up there.

If Papelbon isn’t working out as the closer, they have Bard, Jenks and Wheeler to move around and still present a dynamite presence from the seventh inning on.

If they need to make a trade, they didn’t give up players like Michael Bowden or Lars Anderson in any of their off-season moves. So even in getting Gonzalez, they actually added additional draft picks and kept some solid prospects.

Now… a few things are worth watching.

The pitching. I’m not sure how this Varitek and Saltalamacchia situation is going to work out. Since we have switch-hitting going on and no knuckleballer likely as a regular starter out of the gate, you would figure there isn’t a ton to fix in on. However, by mid-May it might be interesting to see whether… oh, I don’t know… Varitek catches more often in a day-game-after-a-night-game or when Beckett is starting. In other words… are they following a system with the catching, or does it appear that the method to their madness is comforting a few egos? (By the way… while I wouldn’t expect this particular scenario… I could oh so easily see the Red Sox and Rangers on the phone in late June discussing a trade with Mike Napoli coming to Boston for some bullpen help. Maybe that won’t be the particular trade… but catching is simply the most likely place for Boston to have a need. And I happen to like that Napoli has a bit of Mike Scioscia in his history.)

And how about the batting order? When it first looked like Gonzalez would bat fifth, I was a little stunned. But as I thought about it, well: (1) In this lineup, batting 3, 4 or 5 isn’t likely to cost many plate appearances over the course of the season. Batting third or fifth isn’t likely to be the difference between three or four appearances each night. (2) Maybe a righty-lefty thing is going on. Sure… they’re leaning toward Gonzalez fifth because they’ve decided Ellsbury, Pedrioa and Crawford are too valuable a block of hitting to break up and so it’s him or Youkalis. And, ultimately, depending on whether a lefty or righty is pitching, flipping Youkalis and Gonzalez won’t matter much. But that lefty-righty-lefty start to the order is pretty well defined. And, (3) Gonzalez is getting ready for regular playing time after an injury. Having him fifth while he regains his hitting stride and plays 6 to 7 games a week isn’t a bad thing.

However… watch whether or not someone like Ellsbury gets moved to ninth in the order. Pay attention to the playing time of J.D. Drew. And look to see if Ortiz is suddenly batting third and Crawford sixth for a few straight games.

In other words… the Red Sox should be a really great formula team. Maybe you flip Youkalis and Gonzalez depending on the opposing starter… but everything from the batting order to the bullpen makes more than a fair amount of sense without much thought going into it. If you suddenly notice that Varitek’s catching day matches Beckett’s starts an awful lot… or if Pedroia is leading off… that does means something.

New York Yankees
What I expect in 2011: 92-70, wild card

What they did in 2010: 95-67

Key personnel changes: Here’s the amazing thing. Absolutely nothing about Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia (and as I wrap this up, Kevin Millwood) excites me when it comes to individually being on the New York roster. However… since these three guys are effectively being asked to fill a single roster spot, that does get interesting.

Expect any of them to make 30 or more starts? Maybe even be consistent enough to play a substantial part on a playoff roster? Then the Yankees are doomed and looking at a 162-game year. But that’s not really the idea… is it? Instead we are talking about 10-15 starts from any of them… maybe catch lightning in a bottle… and a spot in the bullpen if they even are on the postseason club. For a team that can afford it, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Incredibly… all three of those signings were on minor league contracts. May not be a big splash… may not matter much when the leaves are falling off the trees… they are solid risks right now.

Can’t say much about Andrew Jones… there isn’t much to say. Rafael Soriano is ok.

(For me the problem with Soriano is simple… how great is a very good player if he doesn’t get off the bench? See… the Yankees will most likely either be miles ahead of their opponent, or way, way, way behind in most eighth innings. Does it matter who gets the ball? Because they won 95 games last year with guys that were already on their roster. Soriano should be a good signing. Maybe even a very good one. Trouble is… bullpen still isn’t deep to my eyes… rotation still isn’t deep.)

And then Russell Martin.

Geez. Wow.

Much like the trio of starters, the signing itself is a decent one. You can’t deny the flashes of talent. Unfortunately, the Yankees keep stockpiling positions with broken parts. How many catching… bench utility… designated hitter… all three rolled into one players can you have? Sure… oversimplification of the situation. Still… you get the idea. When everyone is healthy, they can’t all play, and no matter who is playing the team is losing something by what they send to the bench. But everyone isn’t healthy and likely won’t stay healthy, and the team is weaker because of the losses. Strange situation.

My expectations: For me, everything is based on their pitching. Depth of their roster concerns me as well. But pitching is the key.

The batting order is simply brutal. I want to hate it. I admit that. But I guarantee you that over the course of this summer you will be watching the MLB Network… or Baseball Tonight… and you are going to have your evening ruined by names like Gardner. Think about that. As a pitcher, you handle Jeter… Rodriguez… Teixeira… Cano… Granderson… and you’re still likely to get your butt handed to you. Wonderful. I don’t know how many times… we’re talking double-digits in any season… I have flipped over to see a portion of a Yankee game, watched a pitcher navigate through Jeter, Damon, Matsui and so on through the years, only to watch someone called up that morning from the low minors connect on the memory of a lifetime and send the ball into Monument Park. (It happens even more often than an umpire calling the runner safe in the bottom of the ninth, even though the ball arrived at first base two cab rides and an elevator trip to the top of the Empire State Building ahead of the Yankee hitter.)

That said… it’s Sabathia, Soriano and Rivera and, critical that I may be, an awful lot of question marks. Too tough? Ok… you go across the country, any place except within 100-miles of Yankees Stadium… and find me a majority of people that think Phil Hughes is better than Jon Lester or Clay Buchholz right now. And you can’t have it both ways… Hughes is talented and a very good pitcher, while Lester and Buchholz may be (or soon become) two of the very best in the game. Joba Chamberlain is not a feared weapon any more. (And I blame the organization for that as much as anything.)

This club is going to win 90-plus… if only because everyone, including the umpires and league offices, believes they are supposed to.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): Simply put… that lineup needs to carry so much weight.

Can the pitching deliver, night after night after night? I don’t think so.

It won’t matter on some August evenings. Felix Hernandez will beat the Yankees… but they will crush Kansas City and Cleveland and Seattle on any night he isn’t the opposing pitcher.

I’ve cringed in recent years when a rookie faces the Red Sox… because that rookie ends up looking like a $20-million-per arm. The Yankees don’t make that mistake. They always seem to put their foot on the throat when they face inferior talent.

The problem… and where it might go wrong… is that the AL East is absolutely loaded. I said earlier that a quarter of their schedule ends up played against Boston and Tampa… which, yeah, ouch. Go beyond that. Keep in mind… weaker or not… a club like Baltimore has Matt Weiters, Nick Markakis, and Adam Jones… a club like Toronto plays Jose Bautitsta.

Tampa Bay Rays
What I expect in 2011: 85-77

What they did in 2010: 96-66

Key personnel changes: I won’t applaud Manny Ramirez or Kyle Farnsworth, and I wonder about Johnny Damon (who seems to be saying way too many positive things about the Boston Red Sox club he turned down last season). And yet… here with Tampa, a club that has talent and rides the outer edge of the playoffs… they aren’t bad moves.

Instead… Carl Crawford, Dan Wheeler, Rafael Soriano… losses where Tampa not only got weaker, but Boston and New York got better. Carlos Pena. This club is talented and good, but they are losing major contributors.

My expectations: And they are losing too many major contributors for my comfort. Let’s do a quick count. Just a quick count.

Carl Crawford… Dan Wheeler… Rafael Soriano… Carlos Pena… Matt Garza…

Five. I’m already at five members of the 25-man roster, and we’re talking solid, no doubt about it members of the roster. Not guys that might drop down to AAA or be released or sit on the bench.

In their favor, the batting order features professional pain in the neck Johnny Damon. They still have Evan Longoria.

And lord… they have some pitching.

Sure… I got winded talking about Boston and all of their pitching. We’ve got Price and Shields still in Tampa. And if you aren’t familiar with names like Davis and Hellickson just yet… well… it’s just a matter of time. Their starting rotation is young and should get deep into every game. Which is good… because the bullpen plenty of potential landmines.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): There used to be a joke about the NFL… actually, maybe not a joke… that the reason Super Bowl clubs couldn’t survive as a playoff team for more than a couple of years was simply because they couldn’t afford to keep signing their bench players. Thanks to the salary cap, once they were successful and gave dollars to the stars there wasn’t much left for a talented second string guy. Toss in that being a good team meant lower draft selections, and suddenly you had a recipe for diminishing returns over time.

That thought came to mind here. I think it really applies to perfectly to Tampa.

They trade a player like Scott Kazmir or Matt Garza. They lose a player like Carl Crawford. And somehow they keep managing to bring up players like David Price and Evan Longoria and so on to take those roster spots. They load the farm system with prospects. They make use of extra draft picks. The train keeps rolling.

The problem is… eventually there comes a point where you have to be perfect all the time in your moves or you will get at least a bit weaker. Especially when two of the teams in your division can pretty much afford to spend two dollars for every one of yours… year after year after year. This year Carl Crawford’s roster spot is basically filled by Johnny Damon. (I’ll give you all the time you’d like to defend that as an upgrade or even swap… but you might want to just save yourself the troubles and admit it can’t be done right now.)

If Longoria has a great year, and the starters make almost every one of their starts, and a few young players contribute a bit more than expected for their first or second years… this is a dangerous club. Hey… we’re not talking about a bad team here. I sincerely believe they could win the Central or West divisions (in either league). The trouble is… they reside in a division with two powerhouses.

Toronto Blue Jays
What I expect in 2011: 79-83

What they did in 2010: 85-77

Key personnel changes: (Sound of deep breath and a slow exhale.)

Anyone else looking forward to Thor? I wasn’t too interested in it, but then I started hearing about Kenneth Branagh, and I saw the trailer, and… yeah… I’m looking forward to it.

Captain America: The First Avenger? Not so much. Wasn’t too interested in the beginning. Still not. Maybe even less now.

I’m also wondering about…

Oh… right… sorry…

My expectations: How they heck did they win 85 last season?

Their roster is weak… they have no defensive skills, are jaw-droppingly slow, and much of the year will be spent watching Kyle Drabek.

I don’t like much of their batting order.

I’m not certain any of their starters would even be one of the best 15 of the division.

And yet they won 85 games.

I’d feel better placing them in front of Baltimore if they still had Shawn Marcum.

They don’t.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): I don’t see a way it gets better than this for the Blue Jays in 2011. In fact… it is more likely to get worse.

For while the Orioles may not have much pitching either… they have a team that seemed to play better last season once current manager Buck Showalter took over. And… the Orioles have some talent in their group of regulars.

Am I being fair? Maybe not. They do have some young pitching that could be dynamic pitching in a season or two. Drabek could be part of that, along with Romero and Morrow. And the bullpen… while filled with guys other teams didn’t want to take chances on… can also point at those same guys as veterans capable of doing a bit better than just ok. (There is zero doubt in my mind why the Blue Jays would look to a pitching coach for their new manager. John Farrell is being asked to bring along the young arms and do whatever he can to get some extra miles out of aging arms.)

Once you get around Jose Bautista and the power he demonstrated last season though, there isn’t much to count on. Possibilities… well, maybe. They did win 85 last season. But a reliable home run barrage… reliable pitching… reliable winning. Nope. Not buying it.

This team is going to frustrate many opponents… taking a series from the Yankees one weekend and then the Red Sox a few weeks later. But they are also going to frustrate fans… looking ugly at times and likely never winning consistently.

Baltimore Orioles
What I expect in 2011: 75-87

What they did in 2010: 66-96

Key personnel changes: Brought in Kevin Gregg, Vladimir Guerrero, Derrek Lee, Cesar Izturis, and Justin Duchscherer. Traded actively as well. Didn’t lose any players that you would be concerned by if you like the Orioles… seriously, Kevin Millwood leaving is not a concern.

Enough moves that they may be threatening to get out of the AL East basement… not enough to scare anyone when they arrive in town though.

My expectations: Improvement. No massive jump. They still need pitching… and consistency.

I’m looking at their roster… and then flipping over to Tampa. I don’t see a single night I would take their starter over what the Rays will send to the mound.

And when you see them patching together the remainder of a batting order with players like Guerrero and Lee… both fine, but let’s face the facts that they’ve crossed the mid-point of their careers… that’s a problem.

That said… one thing Showalter does well is bring stability. Sure… he brings it in a way that wears out its welcome just as the highest rewards are being realized. The trick here is… if the Orioles get it right, they actually could get to a point where they are capable of spending some serious dollars. It’s a great ballpark, a marketable brand, and while it may not be bundles and bundles of cash… well… if Minnesota and Detroit are spending over $100 million a year, Baltimore should be able to get well beyond them if they can field a winning franchise.

Just not yet.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): If it goes right, they get out of the basement.

Simple as that.


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