The American League East in 2012


Here’s the scary thing about the best division in baseball… one of the bottom-half teams could cost the other clubs dearly.

Do I expect Toronto to make a run at the playoffs? Nope. But they’re a decent team, and playing Boston, Tampa and New York as often as they so… more than a third of their season will be played against those three teams… the Blue Jays will be in a position to cost each a couple of victories.

Those victories could be the difference in a wild card slot or heading home after the regular season.

Those victories could be the difference between a division crown and a wild card slot.

And those victories could screw up the seeding plenty… moving a first or fourth seed into third and fifth.

New York Yankees
What I expect in 2012: 97-65

What they did in 2011: 97-65

Key personnel changes: Added Micahel Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda (trade and free agent). And hey… Andy Pettitte may be back.

My expectations: I don’t have any questions about their pitching this season. I like it. To me it’s not one of the best in the game… easy people, it’s not... but it appears to be deep enough and consistent enough that during the regular season they are going to throttle teams when opponents are throwing the weaker portions of their rotations.

In the playoffs I’ll take the offerings of Tampa, California, and possibly even Boston ahead of New York’s starting staff. But…

One of the things New York did so well when they were on their amazing run a dozen or so years ago was pulverize inferior pitching. They never sent a Roy Halladay or Justin Verlander to the mound. But when the third, fourth and fifth options from their rotation matched up against the corresponding members of the other team… ouch… fireworks and numbers going up in the win column. In short… the Yankees won when they were supposed to win.

(And if you don’t think that matters, you haven’t watched Boston struggle against rookie pitching in recent seasons.)

I don’t believe the Yankees have the best pitching in the American League. (Again, I’d go with California and Tampa right now.)

I don’t believe they have the best offense. (It is very good, and could be the best. I’m just not willing to say it’s a given.)

I don’t even give them the best bullpen… team defense… bench… minor league rosters to draw on… and the story goes on.

But, they may be the most balanced team in baseball. They are above the mid-point in all areas.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): See… let’s look at Pineda.

If he starts the season as a regular piece of the rotation, the kid is going to win 15 games this year. (And if he doesn’t… Phil Hughes will.) And everyone is going to tell you how awesome he is… or Hughes is… because that’s what big-market-media does the best.

Then, when he trips against Tampa or California at some point during the first week to ten days of October, people are going to cry that the long season caught up to him when he gets shelled.

Not so fast.

Maybe his big numbers were in part due to playing for a good team against inferior opponents. Maybe.

New York is in a very funny place right now. With Jeter and Rivera around, the glory days of a decade ago are still fresh. But many of their veterans… Jeter and Rodriguez being the two best examples… are just as capable of being anchors in 2012 as they are capable of being champions.

The Yankees strike me as a solid club from top to bottom that is going to cruise to about 95-wins during the season. And… they also strike me as a club that cannot compete with Texas, California, Tampa, Detroit, or even Boston in the playoffs.

One thing easily worth mentioning… Mr. Pettitte.

The Yankees did not bring Andy back to throw 35 starts and pitch games 1, 4 and 7. He’s back to give them 15-20 starts and one of the best safety nets you could ask for.

Tampa Bay Rays
What I expect in 2012: 94-68

What they did in 2011: 91-71

Key personnel changes: Added Carlos Pena (in a return to Tampa) and Luke Scott.

My expectations: Price… Shields… Hellickson… Moore… where does the pitching end?

I’m not kidding you… Tampa just might have a starting rotation in the minors filled with five guys that would have come out of 2012 spring training as starters for any other club in the AL East.

Add a solid roster to the efforts of Joe Madden, and you can expect big things from this club.

The problems here are found in the trouble they could have scoring runs. A very good defense will help that pitching to make most of their contests low scoring affairs… but there will be some heartbreakers this year.

Pena and Scott add power, but likely won’t be getting many hits or walks along the way.

Look for Evan Longoria to be in the MVP race. If he’s healthy all year, the Rays will be just fine.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): Injuries.

I hate to mention it… especially since this club has in the past maneuvered around some injury problems. But that’s the big thing I see standing in the way of great things, because the Rays are built very well at the top. Their pitching options are ridiculous. They just don’t have much positional depth.

Oh yeah… I could say that if Boston gets their act together, the Rays could be the best team not in the playoffs. I don’t think that’s fair though. Because while Boston needs to prove some things, they may also need for some things out of their control to go right as well. I think Tampa really is in charge of their own destiny. Play well… and they will be playing in October.

Boston Red Sox
What I expect in 2012: 90-72

What they did in 2011: 90-72

Key personnel changes: Traded Marco Scutaro away, along with Jed Lowrie. Jonathan Papelbon left as a free agent.

Signed Kelly Shoppach, Cody Ross, and Nick Punto. Traded for Andrew Bailey, Mark Melancon, and Ryan Sweeney.

My expectations: The more things change…

You know the rest… and because of it, I’m worried about the Red Sox.

Really worried.

Let’s take a look at things.

Carl Crawford ended the 2011 season with everyone hoping to move along and make it a deep, distant part of history. Now… he’s not going to be playing for a few weeks. He’s injured. And while I wish him the best… it’s a wrist injury… and you know, it’s not like baseball players use their wrists in any repetitive, high stress motions. (Speaking of Crawford and being on hold with an injury… not only are there questions about his return and potential lingering issues… do not forget for a second that since he hasn’t been playing, the wonderful batting order question still isn’t settled.)

Lately we’re treated to ideas that Bard… the supposed lock of the new-to-the-rotation options… may not be such a lock after all. Whether he is or isn’t a starter, their pitching is potentially great… potentially bad… and very unstable.

At the close of last season, they had a shortstop but no right fielder. Now, they have no shortstop, and thanks to Crawford’s rehab, right field still isn’t really finalized because the starter and back-up that we have been presented with as a wonderful platoon in right will instead be covering left and right for a few weeks.

See where I’m going? Even though things have been addressed… really… the same questions remain.

Back to the pitching. Do you trust their pitching?

You shouldn’t. Not for opening day.

Lester and Beckett are two very good pitchers. Both have been elite at times. But I don’t think you can place either one at the top of the pitching world today. Lester is quite capable of getting into the conversation… and Beckett is someone I would want pitching for my team in the playoffs at all costs. But right now? I’ve got hesitations.

What? I’m crazy?

Hmm… ok… let’s take a look at one player and one team. Justin Verlander from Detroit… the starting rotation of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Right there, from just six pitchers, I’ve given you a group that could provide five names better than any starter Boston sends to the mound.

(I’ll take the silence you’re offering now as the initial stages of understanding my statement… Jon Lester an ace or no… could have some merit.)

Ok… look… rest easy… it doesn’t have merit. It’s far too easy to bundle the bad together and toss out everything. Lester is one of the best pitchers around. Still…

Notice, I didn’t include anyone from the staff of the California Angels. Didn’t mention the New York Yankees. Avoided the Texas Rangers. (California… New York… Texas… you may want to note these are three playoff candidates. And California… like Tampa, but not quite as deep… is going to be loaded in starters this season.)

Right now New York and Tampa are better teams… it really is nothing more than that. And with Texas the defending West champions and California stocking up for 2012, I think you could easily argue that Boston isn’t one of the top five teams in the American League. Even with the expansion to five teams, becoming a playoff participant is going to be a real challenge for this team.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): The answer is where it could go right.

As much as I pick on them in my expectations, the truth is that this is a talented club that won 90 games last season despite all their problems. There is no doubt they could win 95-100 and the division this year, or even secure a playoff spot with time to spare to set up a postseason rotation. And with Beckett, Lester and Buchholz… I pick on their regular season records, but if healthy all three could be incredible in the playoffs… they could send any starter to a one-game playoff situation and not be thrown off in the next series if they win.

As of this moment, it looks like Daniel Bard or Alfredo Aceves will end up back in the bullpen. One of them should pair with Felix Doubront for the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation.

Now… before you wonder about Aceves and how losing his versatility might hurt the bullpen… it looks like Aaron Cook may be a starting option before the end of April… Diasuke Matsuzaka could be throwing minor league rehab in April or May with an eye on a June return to the Sox.

In short… the pitching problems might actually have some answers available very quickly. And problems could become strengths.

Cook showed flashes of promise in Colorado… and I’m one of those that thinks that while Matsuzaka hasn’t been brilliant, he’s definitely performed better than the reputation many give him.

If these things go right, the Red Sox could be a force well into the playoffs, with significantly deeper pitching than anyone expected (and no trade necessary to accomplish it). A bullpen involving Andrew Bailey, Mark Melancon, Bard, Doubront, and Aceves because the starting five is filled out and comfortably producing? This club could be in great position by mid-season. And while I mention Beckett, Lester and Buchholz as occasional question marks during the regular season (for health, consistency, etc.)… any of the three easily could be a legitimate contender for awards like the Cy Young.

This team will score plenty of runs.

The question I see for this plan becomes easy enough… will Tampa and New York have put strong starts in place, leaving too much ground for Boston to cover once those arms are available?

(And by the way… it is a matter of surviving and then having enough time, because Boston should be horrendous out of the gate. I mean just plain awful. If you think they may have some problems off the field… and I have no way of knowing, but I sure do… then wait until you see what they have on the field to battle. They travel to play Detroit and Toronto as their first two opponents of the year. That should be a lovely 6-games on the road. It gets worse at home. When they get to Fenway, Tampa arrives for a 4-game weekend stay, followed by… yeah, get ready… Texas and New York. (And you think 2011 ended badly? Just wait.))

Toronto Blue Jays
What I expect in 2012: 78-84

What they did in 2011: 81-81

Key personnel changes: I don’t think the Blue Jays really scared New York, Tampa or Boston… but if I was in Baltimore, I wouldn’t be happy about the sudden activity from Canada.

Not only have they seemingly teamed up in every mid-season 2011 trade, but in the off-season they were mentioned all the time. A few trades and some free agents brought in… the Jays aren’t a playoff threat, but they definitely won’t be easy to beat on any night.

Sergio Santos, Francisco Cordero and Darren Oliver make up part of a new… and stronger looking… bullpen for Toronto.

My expectations: Bautista is Bautista at this point… no longer a break-out and unexpected wonder, he has led the league in home runs and provides the Jays with an MVP candidate. He isn’t alone though… doesn’t need to lead the league in 2012 for the Jays to find success. The batting order should put up some runs.

The problem is that the Blue Jays are the fourth best team in their division. And frankly, third place isn’t close.

I could see Adam Lind and Colby Rasmus being quite big pains in the plans of opposing managers. Do not forget the end of 2011… where in slightly over 40 games Brett Lawrie joined the roster and managed to hit over .290 with 9 homers. The Jays will not be getting swept that often… they should be a tough victory for any opponent to notch on any night.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): Let’s do some math.

Boston… New York… Tampa… and then Detroit… California… Texas. That right there represents about 90-games for Toronto. (The number is actually less, but you’ll see my point in a second.) Even if they manage to go 45-45 in those games, they would need to go 45-17 in the remaining games to reach 90 wins.

Winning record? Yeah… maybe… though I doubt it.

Playoffs? Not a shot.

Let’s be honest… their starting rotation is the fourth best in the division. The balanced roster and solid bullpen are good. But if they can’t deliver a winning record against New York, Tampa and Boston, there is simply too much ground to make up against the rest of the league.

Baltimore Orioles
What I expect in 2012: 66-96

What they did in 2011: 69-93

Key personnel changes: Are you kidding? I’m proofreading this column while the Orioles are losing… albeit in an exhibition contest with much of the roster not truly involved… the Orioles are losing to a community college team. And we’re supposed to think of key changes?

Ok… fine… they traded Jeremy Gutherie to Colorado.

My expectations: (I’d put the word “huge” in some giant font type, but there isn’t a size available big enough to really emphasize what I am about to say.)

There are huge questions about Baltimore’s starters. In fact… it isn’t just questions. The Orioles have a horrible rotation. (Their top five might have problems reaching the double-a team for Tampa.)

And that goes into the bullpen as well, with… to my eyes… more major concerns. After that… depth at every position becomes an issue.

See… Hardy, Markakis, Jones and Wieters should be ok as far as hitting. Even Mark Reynolds isn’t bad there. I don’t think they’ll score a ton of runs… but there is enough to feel comfortable placing them at or above the center of the 30 major league teams when it comes to offense.

But Brian Roberts is having troubles getting back to the field… and that leads to one hole in the order. Right now they’re having troubles with any catcher not named Matt Wieters. And they still don’t really have a designated hitter anyone would ever pitch around.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): It isn’t going to go right. They have no pitching. The Baltimore Orioles are quite likely the team that will give up the most runs in 2012.

Wieters is one of the best catchers in the game right now. There just isn’t a lot of strong play around him. The pitching is suspect, and the hitting rises to average (at best).

Hey… look… I like Baltimore, and always have. I want them to do well. I agree that Hardy, Markakis and Jones are good players that not only would you want to build around, they could even be here when the organization threatens a winning record again.

But Wieters is the only superstar. In the AL East, these clubs have two superstars plus stellar pitching.

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