2007 Preview: AL East

It’s Friday which means another division for me to review for the upcoming 2007 season. This is number five with only one to go. If you’d like to review my others, you can click them below:

NL West / NL East / NL Central / AL West

This week’s topic: American League East

The AL East has been a top heavy division for years. It seems as if its the Yankees-Red Sox, Red Sox-Yankees every year. That’s until last season when the Blue Jays were finally able to crack second place after the Red Sox suffered a barrage of injuries at the end of the summer. This year will be no different as the Yankees and Red Sox battle for the top spot but this time with a third dancing partner in Toronto just waiting for their opportunity.

1.) Boston Red Sox
This may be my Sox bias shining through but I have to say, them winning the division makes sense. Not only do they have the best 3-4 punch in baseball (Papi and Manny), but now they have a supporting cast around them that is healthy. Last season, two big pieces to this lineup played injured virtually all season. Centerfielder Coco Crisp and team captain Jason Varitek were plagued with nagging injuries for the whole season and just couldn’t get into any offensive grooves. If Coco can regain his numbers he had in Cleveland in 2004 and 2005 (about .300, 15 HR, 70 RBI, .800 OPS) then all his struggles of last season will be forgotten. The same goes for V-Tek. If he can be healthy all year he will put up a .285 average, 20 homers, 75 RBI which will be huge coming out of that six or seven spot. Plus the addition of a (hopefully healthy) JD Drew will make this a “Yankee type” lineup from top to bottom.

By now you know the name Daisuke Matsuzaka so I won’t go too deep into details about him as he has been (and will be) covered to death. But his presence in this rotation will be enormous. But the big question will be how Jonathan Papelbon adjusts to his new role as a starting pitcher. Last season he hit the league by storm as a closer posting 35 saves with a minuet 0.92 ERA. But due to pitching everyday he developed arm problems and now will be inserted into the starting rotation where he will only have to pitch every fifth day. This will be one of the best rotations in baseball in 2007 if guys like Schilling and Beckett can stay healthy.

Bottom Line: This race is going to come down to the final month if not week. The thing that will carry the Red Sox to the division will be their depth. The Yankees have always been known as the deepest team in their rotation and lineup but the Sox have taken that crown and because of that, will take the division crown.

2.) New York Yankees
Yankees fans had better enjoy Alex Rodriguez while they can because I am almost certain he will opt out after this season. The mistreatment he receives from the New York fans and media is just unacceptable. But putting that aside, its tough to gage how he will react to all this. If he continues to let it get in his head, he will continue to struggle in the field and eventually more at the plate. If that happens, they Yankees will have a lot of trouble contending. But what they will have is a full season of Bobby Abreu and that will be a great thing for this team. Abreu’s move to the Yankees relieved the pressure to hit home runs and now allows him to do what he does best, get on base.

As for the rotation, let’s just assume the Clemens has no intentions of coming back to the Yankees. If that’s the case, this Yankees rotation has some question marks. Setting aside the question of how their rotation will round out, there is always concern when you have two older pitchers. Mike Mussina (15-7, 3.51 ERA) had a very solid season until he ran into some injury troubles down the stretch. If he can regain form along with the returning Andy Pettitte (14-13, 4.20 ERA), then the Yankees will be just fine.

Bottom Line: I just get the feeling that someone in this Yankees rotation is going to get hurt this season and they will end up having to scramble to find a replacement. There’s also the possibility that mega-prospect Philip Hughes could be called up sooner than the September call-ups. This could be a little too fast as the ideal thing would be to wait until 2008. But one thing is for sure, if the Yankees are lagging behind the Sox around the All-Star break, they will go out and fill whatever holes they might have.

3.) Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays quietly snuck into second place last season in the NL East. They were lead by centerfielder Vernon Wells and by less publicized Lyle Overbay. Overbay once again put up great numbers in 2006 (.312/.372/.508, 22 HR, 92 RBI), but this wasn’t the first time. Over the past three seasons Overbay has averaged 20 homers and 45 doubles. He along with veteran free agent slugger Frank Thomas (.270/.381/.545, 39 HR, 114 RBI) have made this middle of the order something to talk about.

The ace of this staff has solidified himself as one of the best in the game. Roy Halladay fought through the injury bug in 2006 to post a 16-5 record and 3.19 ERA. This rotation will live and die by Halladay (much like the Twins and Johan Santana) which means for them to compete in the American League East this season, not only will Halladay have to be healthy all season, but he will also need to post another Cy Young caliber season.

Bottom Line: If the Blue Jays want to compete this season they will need a lot of help from their pitching staff. They have the lineup to compete, but there are some uncertainties at the back end of the rotation. If they can get good starts from them consistently, then they should be right in the thick of the race.

4.) Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles are doomed to finish fourth again. There is just too big of a gap in talent level between them and the top three teams in the division. The Orioles did make a move to sign free agent Aubrey Huff during the off season in hopes that he can return to his 2003-2004 form in which he averaged a little over .300, 32 homers, and 105 RBI. If that Huff comes to Baltimore, it will go a long way in their success.

The Baltimore rotation has a lot of holes in it. Other than their ace Erik Bedard (15-11, 3.76 ERA), they have a lot of question marks in it. After Kris Benson bowed out due to injury (apparently he’s not having season ending surgery so who knows what his deal is), the O’s went out and signed veteran right hander Steve Trachsel (15-8, 4.97 ERA with the Mets in 2006) to round out their shaky rotation. This is one of their short comings and will hurt them and prevent them from competing here in 2007.

Bottom Line: Barring any miracles, the O’s are not going to be a factor in 2007. Sure they’ll win some games and go on some runs, but they won’t give the Yanks or Sox any real threat.

5.) Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Now the only reason I have the Devil Rays behind the Orioles is because of the inexperience they have. But where they lack in inexperience, they more than make up for in young, raw talent. Looking at this year’s team and analyzing their farm system, one can see that this team has a very bright future ahead of them. Going into 2007, they have one of the best outfields in the game highlighted by Carl Crawford. Crawford has stayed steady with an over .300 average the past two seasons and had over 50 stolen bases three out of the past four years. Not only that but we have seen his homer and RBI numbers increase each year as well. Now that the Rays have become more offensively potent with players improving and the full-time addition of Delmon Young, they should score more runs which will help them win more games than ever.

While the rotation may not be as strong as the team’s offensive abilities, it is headlined by one of the best young pitchers in the game, Scott Kazmir. Kazmir has shown incredible stuff posting ERAs of 3.77 and 3.24 over the past two years, in particularly against big division foes. In fact, in 2006 Kazmir continued to show his dominance over the big-time AL East teams like the Red Sox (3-1, 2.33 ERA), New York Yankees (0-2, 3.97 ERA), and Toronto Blue Jays (1-0, 1.32 ERA). This guy is only going to get better and is the center piece around the youth movement in Tampa.

Bottom Line: This group that is about to join the major league roster in the next couple of seasons is going to be something special. If Tampa wasn’t stuck in the aggressive alpha-male battle that is the AL East, they could definitely be an interesting team to watch. In the mean time, they will just have to settle for making some noise.

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