Sunday, April 26, 2009

AL East Preview?

So here we are, about 10% of the way through the 2009 MLB season and, in classic Joe & Joe style, we haven't finished our season preview. So rather than just pretend that these games haven't been played, we're going to change things up a little bit. Instead of a formal "preview", this post is going to focus on whether or not the first three weeks of the season was a true representation of each team. With the Blue Jays off to a hot start, the defending AL champion Rays struggling and the Boston/New York rivalry prominently involved it should be a fun column.

Toronto Blue Jays (Currently 13-6, 1st place)

The Jays have started the season red hot at the plate and it has propelled them to the best record in the American League. The biggest surprise has been the return of Aaron Hill, who missed most of the 2008 season with a concussion. Hill is hitting .375 with 5 home runs, well above his lifetime .289 lifetime average. The veteran players in the middle of the Toronto lineup have struggled out of the gate (Alex Rios and Vernon Wells are both hitting under .270), but the bottom half of the Jays lineup have definitely made up for it. Adam Lind is crushing the baseball in his first full-time role. Despite the fact that I would have bashed them as "over the hill" veterans before the season started, Scott Rolan and Lyle Overbay have both returned to their 2006 selves. With big-time prospect Travis Snider hitting well at the bottom of the order, the Blue Jays offense has definitely surprised early in 2009.

The Toronto pitching staff has been decimated by injuries early in 2009. Starters Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum are probably both lost for the year with shoulder injuries requiring surgery. 4th starter Jesse Litsch is currently out with a forearm strain and Ricky Romero is also missing time. In the bullpen, BJ Ryan has been placed on the DL after struggling with command and velocity and he is joined by effective right hander Casey Janssen. Simply put, the Blue Jays pitching staff is just too thin and it's going to start catching up to them in the form of three run homers.

Conclusion: Toronto's offense has overachieved, while they have gotten by with a patchwork pitching staff, so it's tough to expect the Jays to keep racking up the wins. In fact, despite the hot start, I expect them to finish just below .500.

Boston Red Sox (Currently 11-6, 2st place)

The Red Sox have basically performed as expected to start 2009. Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia have performed nominally. David Ortiz has struggled, but he also struggled early in 2008 before catching fire later in the season. Kevin Youkilis has been ridiculous, batting .444 and getting on base at a .551 clip. Expect him to cool off at some point, although since he anchors my fantasy team, I'm staying optimistic. Jason Bay and JD Drew have been about what Boston fans have expected, while Mike Lowell is healthy and raking at the bottom or the lineup. Young shortstop Jed Lowrie may be lost for the year with a wrist injury, but Boston has enough fire power that this is barely a footnote.

The BoSox pitching staff has been a little underwhelming, but good enough. Josh Beckett and Brad Penny have both had one bad outing, which has skewed their numbers. Tim Wakefield has had the knuckleball dancing early in 2009 and has been terrific. Jon Lester struggled in his first two starts, but looks to have settled down, while Justin Masterson has done a nice job transitioning from the bullpen to replace a fatigued Daisuke Matsuzaka.

In the bullpen, Jonathan Papelbon has been overpowering hitters, as usual. While setup men like Hideki Okajima and Takashi Saito have struggled, Manny Delcarmen has been lights out and usurpted the 8th inning role.

Conclusion: Boston is pretty much on course, expect them to win the division.

New York Yankees (Currently 9-8, 3st place)

Don't we do this every year? The Yankees get out to a slow start, half the sports writers in America write them off before June and then the Yanks reel off 8 straight wins to get right back into the mix. The New York front office has invested a lot of money into this Yankees team, and it's going to pay off sooner rather than later.

The New York offense has been good out of the gates. It's tough to say whether or not the new Yankee stadium is inflating numbers, but the Yankees are definitely hitting. Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon are swinging hot bats at the top of the lineup. Mark Teixeira has struggled in pinstripes, but he is simply too good of a hitter to hit .235 all season. Where Teixeira has floundered, former underachievers Nick Swisher and Robinson Cano have picked up the slack. Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui have been OK. And of course there is that A-Rod guy who is scheduled to come back in a few weeks...he should help.

The Yankees pitching staff is kinda like the U.S. banking industry: they are just too big to fail. CC Sabathia has stumbled a couple times, but should still win 15+ games. A.J. Burnett has also struggled, but if he can stay healthy, he'll be effective. Andy Pettitte has been sharp this spring, but the Yankees need to be using him more like a #5 starter than a #3. The guy who should be their #3, Chien-Ming Wang has been terrible, where all New York really needs is for him to be "not terrible". Joba Chamberlain has been pretty effective in three starts, but expect him to have some natural growing pains. Look for a youngster like Phil Hughes to get a shot at a rotation spot.

Conclusion: New York is fine, I'm guessing that they win the Wild Card.

Baltimore Orioles (Currently 8-10, 4st place)

I've semi-adopted the Orioles as one of my teams. I think it has to do with several of my friends being O's fans, watching plenty of their games on local TV and Baltimore filling the underdog role in the AL East. Unfortunately for Oriole fans, I'm pretty sure that they are going to continue being the underdog for the next few years.

The Baltimore bats have definitely shown up to start the 2009 season, with veterans Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis and Aubrey Huff anchoring the Oriole lineup, while youngster Adam "Don't Call Me Pacman" Jones is growing into role he has only previously hinted at (seriously, if you go to a Baltimore game this year, don't get drunk and yell "Pacman!" or Jones will turn around and give you a wicked stare, ummm, or so I hear).

Despite all the offensive improvements, Baltimore won't take any steps forward until the pitching improves. The Orioles starting rotation may be the worst in the big leagues. Jeremy Guthrie is a legitimate starter, but he definitely shouldn't be your #1. Unfortunately for the O's, that's the role he has to fill. From Guthrie, there is a sharp drop off. Koji Uehara is a 34-year-old Japanese import, Adam Eaton has never really gotten it together in his 10 year career, and Mark Hendrickson is tall (pretty much the most positive thing I could write about him). This is a pitching staff that could easily drag the Orioles to 100 loses.

Conclusion: Once the bats cool off, the O's are sunk. Clearly the worst team in the division.

Tampa Bay Rays (Currently 7-11, 5st place)

I've got news for you Rays fans (all 1,452 of you), you aren't going back to the playoffs (see, this was a much bolder prediction 3 weeks ago, dammit, I wish I wasn't so lazy). Anyway, 2008 was a magical year for the Rays, and a natural recession could easily be expected.

The Tampa lineup remains mostly unchanged from last year (they did upgrade to DH Pat Burrell) and I think they will produce about the same results, if not get slightly better. The Rays starting rotation is also mostly the same as the 2008 squad and should get better with another year of seasoning and the addition of superstar-in-the-making David Price. So with an improved lineup and starting rotation, why do I think the Rays will miss the playoffs? The short answer is their bullpen (again, this would be a bolder prediction if the top two Tampa set-up men didn't currently have ERAs over 5.0).

It's not that I think the bullpen will be awful in 2009, it just won't be as incredible as it was in 2008. It's tough to see Troy Percival slamming the door another 28 times in 2009, especially since he has already flirted with some injury problems. Top set-up man Dan Wheeler had an incredible 2008, posting a 3.12 ERA with a 0.99 WHIP and a .183 BAA. This just isn't going to happen again for a guy who is a career 4.04 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and .249 BAA. As good as Dan Wheeler was in 2008, Grant Balfour was even better, posting 1.54 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and .143 BAA. Want another example? J.P. Howell was 2.22 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, .194 BAA. That's three guys with opposing batting averages under .200, that's amazing; amazing and impossible to be replicated in 2009.

Conclusion: The Rays are going to be slightly better than they were in 2008, with the exception of their bullpen, which will be more 'average' than 'historically dominant'. This alone pushes them out of the top spot in the division and closer to a .500 record.

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