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AL East preview: Rest of division catching up to Yankees, Red Sox

With the defending division champion Rays having faded a bit in the wake of losing Carl Crawford and their entire bullpen, the similarly-constructed Yankees and Red Sox are once again set to do battle atop the division, with both likely to make the playoffs regardless of the order of their finish. The bottom half of the division is catching up, however, as the Blue Jays boast pitching and power, and the Orioles look to build on their hot finish to the 2010 season under new manager Buck Showalter with young pitching and veteran bats.

WINTER GRADE: A

The Orioles overhauled their infield, getting three years of third baseman Mark Reynolds for a pair of undistinguished righty relievers, upgrading shortstop on both sides when the Twins gifted them with J.J. Hardy for another pair of relief arms, and taking an up-side gamble on Derrek Lee, something which paid off for the Braves down the stretch last year. They also added designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero on a one-year, $8 million deal similar to Lee's, and journeyman closer Kevin Gregg, who joins a strong end-game in the bullpen with the re-signed Koji Uehara.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Can Adam Jones and/or Matt Wieters make the Leap?

Centerfielder Jones appeared on the verge of a breakout with a big first half in 2009 which earned him an All-Star selection, but injuries dashed his second half and he stumbled out of the gate last year. Still, he hit .302/.351/.475 from June 1 through the end of the season and is still just 25. That's less than a year older than Wieters, the fifth-overall pick in the 2007 draft and a supposed can't-miss catching stud, who followed up his disappointing rookie campaign with a sharp drop in his line-drive rate and a resulting plunge in batting average last year, from .288 to .249.

2. When will Zach Britton join the rotation?

Britton, a lefty groundballer who dominated the Grapefruit League this spring, is the Orioles' top prospect and projects as a potential ace. He'll open the season in Triple-A, but could be in the major league rotation by the end of April and could emerge as the best of a talented young crop of starters soon after.

3. Can the O's cash in as sellers at the trading deadline?

Finally, with veterans such as Guerrero, Lee, and Uehara signed to one-year deals without no-trade clauses, and Hardy, outfielder Luke Scott, and lefty reliever Mike Gonzalez also due to become free agents after the season, the Orioles have a lot to offer contending clubs looking to fill holes at the deadline. For a team trying to go from rebuilding to winning, there's an opportunity there to add a key piece or two to aid in that transition.

X-FACTOR:

Buck Showalter, manager

The Orioles were 32-73 (.407) last year before Showalter took over as their manager on August 3. They then went 34-23 (.596) under their new skipper. According to research done by Ben Lindbergh and Steven Goldman of Baseball Prospectus, that was the second biggest improvement over the final 57 games of a season in baseball history and the greatest managerial turn around ever. However, the 1907 Cardinals, the one team to enjoy a larger improvement down the stretch, were actually worse the following year than they had been before their turnaround. So was the Buck bump real or illusory? Well, Showalter did effect big improvements in his second season in each of his three previous managerial stops, but all that we can we can quantify about the 2010 O's is that they were much better at preventing runs after Showalter's arrival, in part because of some coincidental defensive upgrades. This year, Showalter has brought in his own coaching staff, and the Orioles' prospect-heavy rotation and revamped infield defense offer hope that those stingy ways can continue, but expecting the Orioles to continue to play at a near-.600 clip, or even at a winning pace, is unreasonable.

SCOUT'S TAKE

"The warm fuzzies from Baltimore's second half last season have dissipated some. This club has not taken a step forward by any stretch. They've got the makings of a pretty good staff. When June comes around, Zach Britton will be in the rotation because he's better than some of them right now. In spring training last year the phenom for the Orioles was Brian Matusz; this year it's Britton."

WINTER GRADE: A

Let's see: Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler as the third and fourth best righties in the bullpen. That on top of 89 wins and the healthy returns of Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, and Jacoby Ellsbury. Not bad. Of course, one could argue that the upgrade to Gonzalez at first base and Youkilis at third base over Youkilis at first and Adrian Beltre at third may not be all that large when you take defense into account, that Crawford's range, a large part of his overall value, is wasted in Fenway Park's shallow left field and his contract could prove disastrous in the long-term, and that the Sox were convinced that Ellsbury wasn't viable defensively in centerfield just a year ago. Still, the upside of this team is tremendous.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Can they stay healthy?

If the Red Sox had stayed healthy, they probably would have won the division last year. Instead they lost Dustin Pedroia for 98 days, Kevin Youkilis for 62, Mike Cameron for 101 and Jacoby Ellsbury for all but 18 games. Josh Beckett missed roughly a dozen starts, Daisuke Matsuzaka missed a handful, and none of that counts day-to-day absences and aches or the resulting poor performances from attempting to play through injury. Health is a major factor for any team, but it's one the Red Sox and their fans are hyper-aware of coming off last season.

2. Can David Ortiz continue to defy nature?

Ortiz appeared to be in fairly obvious decline in 2008 and 2009 and started 2010 ice cold, but he flipped the switch in May and looked almost like his old self the rest of the way. Still, players with his body type tend to deteriorate quickly in their mid-30s. Ortiz, who at the very least seems to have lost the ability to hit lefties, is 35 this year.

3. Is there a catcher in the house?

Jarrod Saltalamacchia was once a top prospect, but approaching his 26th birthday with a .248/.315/.386 career major league line, this might be his last chance to eke out a career as a major league starter. That line is almost a dead match for that of the average major league catcher last year, which would do the trick if Salty was similarly average at throwing out runners, but he's well below. His backup is 38-year-old team mascot Jason Varitek, who has hit .217/.310/.386 over the past three years while being similarly permissive with baserunners. Don't be surprised if those two make room for newly acquired Michael McKenry, a 26-year-old out of the Rockies system with strong catch-and-throw skills and a similar offensive projection.

X-FACTOR:

John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka

The only meaningful difference between the Yankees and Red Sox heading into the season is the relative depth in their starting rotations. Even there, the top three men are fairly analogous: Jon Lester and CC Sabathia are big-time lefty aces; Clay Buchholz and Phil Hughes are former top prospects coming off their first full seasons in a big league rotation, both of whom have almost equal potential to take a step forward or backward; Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett are at times surly former Marlins teammates with checkered injury histories who struggle to pitch as well as their stuff says they should. That boils the division down to the difference between the duo of John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka and their Yankee counterparts, veteran Freddy Garcia and rookie Ivan Nova. Matsuzaka has been a massive disappointment and is hardly a better bet than Garcia at this point, but Lackey pitched well in the second half of 2010 and gives the Sox a clear advantage. If Lackey struggles or gets hurt, however, Boston's advantage could disappear with him.

SCOUT'S TAKE

"That's some kind of deep lineup. If you take a cylinder away from this engine, it's still a Ferrari. Adrian Gonzalez could very possibly be a monster on that team and Carl Crawford's a big game-changer for this club but they have to keep Kevin Youkilis healthy. He has to provide that righthanded presence, much like Dustin Pedroia, who's the igniter for his club. David Ortiz has been great this spring. He's got his bat speed back."

WINTER GRADE: C-

Desperate for rotation help, the Yankees pinned their hopes on a pair of 30-something lefties who ultimately went with their hearts rather than their wallets and left the Yankees to pick through the non-roster detritus for Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon and Kevin Millwood. It's hard to blame general manager Brian Cashman for Cliff Lee and Andy Pettitte spurning his advances, but "nice try" doesn't cut it in the Bronx. The Yankees also overpaid Derek Jeter to return despite the fact that he was never really going to leave and burned their top pick in what promises to be a fruitful 2011 amateur draft when a front-office executive went over Cashman's head and signed Rafael Soriano to a bizarre three-year deal with opt-outs after each season. The Yankees made some nice moves to reinforce their bench, and Russell Martin could be a good stop-gap behind the plate while top prospect Jesus Montero tunes up in Triple-A, but it won't mean much if they can't count on their back-end starters to keep them in games.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Will the rotation be a disaster?

CC Sabathia is in the prime of a Hall of Fame career, but Phil Hughes had a 4.98 ERA over his final 23 starts last year, A.J. Burnett posted one of the worst full seasons by a Yankee starting pitcher in team history in 2010, Freddy Garcia is an extreme fly ball pitcher who throws in the high 80s and hasn't pitched enough to qualify for an ERA title since 2006, and Ivan Nova is an unproven rookie who had trouble turning over an opposing line up a third time in his brief major league look last year. There are upside plays on all four, but it could get ugly.

2. Where will Jesus Montero be in August?

Catching prospect Jesus Montero is considered the top hitting prospect in baseball, but there are serious doubts about his viability as a catcher at the major league level. By August he could either be the Yankees' starting catcher or the property of another team via a desperation deadline deal for rotation help.

3. How much does Derek Jeter have left?

Lat year was Jeter's worst major league season. He batted .270/.340/.370, all career lows and this June will bring his 37th birthday. Shortstops don't typically hold their value in to their late thirties, and hitting coach Kevin Long has already eliminated Jeter's stride to compensate for his slower bat, which should give Jeter a fighting chance, but is also concrete evidence that his skills are eroding.

X-FACTOR:

Brian Cashman

Perhaps more than any other team in baseball, the Yankees have the ability and drive to make a big splash at the trading deadline. Not only do they have the financial wherewithal to take on another team's salary dump, but they have a well-stocked farm system flush with pitching and a perennial win-now mandate from the ownership and fans. The Yankees nearly traded Montero for Cliff Lee last July, only to have the Mariners back out of the deal, and can be expected to be big players again this year. The only question is whether or not the talent they seek will be available, as there are precious few worthwhile starting pitchers about to enter their walk years.

SCOUT'S TAKE

"Maybe it will be nice for the Yankees not to have high expectations. Joba Chamberlain will stay in the bullpen and that's good for him. Last year he became a breaking ball pitcher because his fastball command wasn't there. Most of his success came when he pitched backwards and used his breaking ball early. Brett Gardner would be a good choice to bat leadoff. He is a prototypical leadoff guy who can impact a game more than Jeter can now by bunting, working counts, stealing bases. Batting second would allow Jeter, who hits well the other way, to do some things. They don't need a lot offensively from Russell Martin and I don't think they'll get it. He's an above average catcher with above average arm. He allows Jorge Posada to move to DH, where he should have been for the last year and a half."

WINTER GRADE: C

With rookie Jeremy Hellickson ready to step into the rotation, the Rays cashed in Matt Garza and his declining strikeout rate for a nice package of prospects from the Cubs, and with shortstop Reid Brignac finally arrived, they got a solid quartet from the Padres for the overrated Jason Bartlett. Still, the defections of Carl Crawford and their entire bullpen, anticipated though they might have been, hurt. The two-for-one signing of Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez at the end of January should give the offense a nice boost, but the downgrade from Crawford to Damon in leftfield will undermine it. For a winter in which the team lost one of its signature players, it could have been worse, but the Rays are clearly diminished, even if not as much as many suspect.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. What's the end-game?

The biggest question facing the Rays in 2011 is how their revamped bullpen will perform. Joel Peralta's opponents batting average on balls in play of .203 in 2010, a figure sure to rebound toward the league average around .300, and the mere presence of Kyle Farnsworth doesn't inspire much confidence. However, the Rays have made silk purses out of cows' ears before and 24-year-old lefty Jake McGee is a legitimate closer prospect who, despite Joe Maddon's refusal to name a closer coming out of camp, seems sure to claim the job at some point this year.

2. Did they sacrifice too much defense?

The Rays' worst-to-first turnaround in 2008 was largely built on the shoulders of a vastly improved defense, which makes losing Crawford, Carlos Peña, and Bartlett, the last of whom was a key part of that defensive upgrade, a bit frightening. The good news is that Brignac is at least Bartlett's equal afield and may have surpassed him, and Peña's initial replacement, minor league veteran Dan Johnson, is adept enough with a glove to have played 36 games at third base in Triple-A last year. Replacing Crawford with Damon is far more problematic, but Desmond Jennings is lurking in the wings should the Rays decide Damon is untenable in the field (or should playing on the Tropicana Field turf bounce Damon to the disabled list).

3. Speaking of Desmond Jennings...what happened to him?

Jennings, the Rays' top position prospect, was supposed to be Crawford's successor this season, but a wrist injury impeded his performance at Triple-A last year, prompting the Rays to give the 24-year-old a little more time in Durham to get back up to speed by signing Damon.

X-FACTOR:

Jeremy Hellickson, SP

The Rays just might have the best starting rotation in the American League. They're certainly in the discussion with five, homegrown arms under the age of 30 led by 25-year-old lefty ace David Price and buoyed this year by the arrival of Rookie of the Year favorite Hellickson, who turns 24 next week. Hellickson was impressive during his brief stint as a starter last year, going 3-0 with a 2.05 ERA in four starts before moving to the bullpen in September. In a division likely to be decided by the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Boston and New York rotations, the Rays' talented young starters represent a significant advantage. The Rays are a longshot this year, but don't count them out. Preventing runs is every bit as important as scoring them.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"Everything will have to break perfectly for them to contend in 2011. They have potential with a lot of young players. They're well-served in the upcoming years, but this might be the year they take a step back. The biggest concern is their bullpen -- a huge, huge concern. They have no proven late-inning guy. This is a club that is starved for power. Losing the home run threat of Carlos Peña is huge for them."

WINTER GRADE: B+

The Blue Jays big accomplishment this winter was unloading Vernon Wells and his albatross of a contract on the desperate Angels. That may not get them any closer to contention in 2011, but it could make a huge difference in the team's rebuilding process as it frees up $81 million over the next four seasons. Dealing from strength and getting the Brewers' top prospect, infielder Brett Lawrie, for 29-year-old starter Shaun Marcum was also a nice move, one that could have a major league impact as soon as this summer as Lawrie appears on pace to take over at third base after easing into the position in Triple-A. Also on the plus side of the ledger: hiring former Red Sox pitching coach and Indians director of player development John Farrell to succeed the retiring Cito Gaston as manager.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Will their ballpark be as favorable?

The Rogers Centre has always been a home-run-friendly environment, but last year it was 35 percent easier to hit a home run there than in the average major league park according to the Bill James Handbook, a Park Factor exceeded only by Coors Field, U.S. Cellular Field, and the new Yankee Stadium. Jose Bautista hit 33 of his league-leading 54 home runs at home, and the Jays as a team hit 150 home runs at home, more than 14 teams, nearly half of the major leagues, hit across 162 games. Given that the Jays were toward the bottom of the majors in walks and batting average, those homers made up an unusually large portion of their offense.

2. Can Aaron Hill and Adam Lind bounce back?

Take, for example, Hill and Lind, who combined to hit .222 with just 79 walks against 49 homers last year. In 2009, those two combined to hit .295/.349/.528, score 196 runs and drive in another 222.

3. Will Travis Snider ever deliver on his promise?

Snider, a career .302/.376/.530 hitter in the minors -- including a whopping .339/.420/.623 line in 274 Triple-A plate appearance -- was Baseball America's number-six prospect entering the 2009 season but he has hit just .255/.318/.446 across parts of three major league seasons. At 23, there's still hope for Snider, but less optimism surrounding the 27-year-old Lind and the 29-year-old Hill, whom the Jays should have traded after his career year in 2009.

X-FACTOR:

Jose Bautista, OF

Nobody saw Bautista's 54-homer season coming, so there's no use pretending we know what he'll do this year. Still, it seems almost certain that he'll give some of that production back, if only because the only players ever to follow one 54-homer season with another are Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr., and Babe Ruth. The big question is whether Bautista will settle in as an All-Star quality slugger, popping 30-odd homers, drawing his share of walks, and anchoring the Jays' lineup, or if he'll revert to being the hitter he was prior to 2010, hitting .238 with a 162-game average of 17 taters. After Brady Anderson jumped from 16 to 50 home runs in 1996, he fell right back down to 18 in 1997 and reached 20 just one more time in his career. We'd cite a second comparable player, but there isn't one.

SCOUT'S TAKE

"This organization's on the right track. It's clear they're adding as many prospects as they can, and there's a ton of top talent there. But they still may need to take a step back before they contend. They're a .500 team, but with a lot of promise. Kyle Drabek is a huge difference maker on this staff. He's got no fear. If Drabek matures and develops, you're talking about a 1-2-3, with him, Morrow, and Ricky Romero, that's playoff ready."

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