Thursday, March 24, 2005

Bruce Blogs Baseball - The American League East

1. New York Yankees
The Yankees have remade 60% of their starting staff, bringing in 41-year-old Randy Johnson, along with Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright. Pavano landed a big contract for the first time, but has never been considered a consistent pitcher until he put up big numbers in a contract year. Pavano is only 29, though, so he might be hitting his stride. Wright was 15-8 in Atlanta last season, but was virtually invisible since 1998 until last year. He’s never thrown 200 major-league innings, and has had a multitude of arm problems during his career. Wright did seem to shed his past reputation of headhunting in his big-league return last year. Johnson was the prize acquisition for the Yankees’ brass. He’s 41, but threw a perfect game and managed to win 16 games on a dreadful Arizona team. Kevin Brown, also over 40, and Mike Mussina, 36, are also expected to log significant innings for a team that doesn’t have much in the way of starting pitching prospects on the farm.

The bullpen is anchored by Mariano Rivera, who posted 53 saves and held hitters to a meager .225 batting average. Hitters still have trouble with his cut fastball, though he’s not thought to be as overpowering as in recent years. Steve Karsay, Mike Stanton, and Tanyon Sturtze need to be sharp, as Paul Quantrill won’t hold up if he’s asked to pitch in another 86 games in 2005.

Position players: The offense, if the veterans continue to play at a high level, will be the most dangerous in baseball. Tony Womack was signed as a free agent and will bat leadoff. Love him or hate him, Derek Jeter is one of the best in the business, especially when his team needs a pick-me-up. One would think that Gary Sheffield is in for a big year after he went .290-36-121 with only one good shoulder; now he has the bad shoulder fixed. Alex Rodriguez will only improve now that he’s more comfortable in the New York limelight.

Now for the question mark: Can Jason Giambi return to old form? In a season full of controversy, injury, and illness, Giambi hit a putrid .208 and only drove in 40 runs. He seems to have the support of the organization as he tries to bounce back from whatever it was that caused his problems last year, but at age 34, is Giambi capable of completing the comeback? Even if he isn’t, the offense has enough weapons to score runs.

Overall analysis: The addition of Womack is a good one. It stabilizes the top of the Yankees’ order with a solid hitter who will get on base and “set the table” for Jeter, ARod, and Sheffield. However, the pitching staff is a greater question mark. There are enough potential problems because of age, lack of depth, and the injury history of players such as Brown and Wright that it’s hard to imagine the Yankees being unbeatable. With the pain of watching the Red Sox celebrate an ALCS comeback win on their field serving as motivation, and the hunger to win that comes from the team’s front office (read: George), the flawed Yankees should be expected to beat out the flawed Red Sox for divisional supremacy.

2. Boston Red Sox
Playoff hero Derek Lowe is now an overpaid Dodger. Cult hero Pedro Martinez is now an overpaid Met. Replacing them in the Sox rotation will be 41-year-old David Wells and Matt Clement, who’s always had a great arm but rarely has put up great numbers. The rotation will be led by veteran Curt Schilling. If healthy after ankle surgery, Schilling provides a reliable presence. He’s 38, but won 21 games last season and finished as the runner-up in Cy Young Award voting. Besides Schilling, Wells, and Clement, Bronson Arroyo figures to play a big role. Only 28, he improved as the season wore on last year, and was very good for the Sox in the postseason. Tim Wakefield is also available to start, but the knuckleballer is best used as a part-time starter. Luckily for the Red Sox, free-agent signee Wade Miller should be available by then, as he returns from rotator cuff surgery.

The bullpen is full of veterans who thrived in their roles during the playoffs last year. Closer Keith Foulke was amazing in October, and now his job is to carry that success over to 2005. Mike Timlin, Alan Embree, free-agent signee Matt Mantei, and John Halama are all expected to play key roles this season. The key is the short relief work of Timlin and Embree. The average age of the two is 37, and both were shaky at times last season.

Position players: The Yankees have the best lineup in the American League, and the Red Sox are right behind them. Johnny Damon drove in 94 runs out of the leadoff spot. Edgar Renteria is a great hitting upgrade at shortstop, and he isn’t all that bad with the glove. The Sox can mash with the best of them thanks to Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Kevin Millar, undisputed team leader Jason Varitek, and Trot Nixon are all solid hitters. Renteria’s signing, combined with Bill Mueller at third and Mark Bellhorn at second, gives the Sox a decent defensive infield, though Millar is a question mark at first base. Ramirez will drive the Sox nuts in left field, but they’ll put up with it as long as he hits (.308-43-130 last year).

Overall analysis: When a team wins a world championship, it leaves at least some observers curious about the hunger of the team to repeat. This team has the look and sound of a team that wants to go all the way again this year. Schilling is back to lead the rotation (after he misses the first couple weeks or so finishing his recovery from ankle surgery). Can Wells prove to be an upgrade over Lowe? Can Clement be solid as the third starter? Like Pavano in New York, Clement has never truly lived up to his potential. Renteria helps the lineup and the defense, but if everything goes according to plan, the Sox won’t be good enough to beat out the Yankees in the division. They should make the playoffs, however, and we all know what the American League Wild Card did last year.

3. Baltimore Orioles
What pitching? In all seriousness, the Orioles staff is the only thing keeping them from being a contender. Sidney Ponson lost half a kindergartner during the offseason, and the hope is that a leaner (relatively speaking) Ponson will put up better numbers than the 11-15-5.30 masterpiece from last year. The Orioles need it, because only Rodrigo Lopez looks to be a sure thing in this rotation. Lopez won 14 games and emerged as a solid starter for Baltimore, but the bottom three in the rotation are a huge question mark. The best prospect there is third starter Daniel Cabrera, a 12-game winner last year who needs to improve his control (89 walks and just 76 Ks in 147 innings). Eric Bedard will start regularly after a solid effort in 2004 after Tommy John surgery. Eric DuBose and Matt Riley are the best of the mediocre bunch competing for the fifth starter job.

The bullpen has issues, mainly because closer Jorge Julio was shaky (at best) in 2004 (4.57 ERA, 22 saves, 11 HR allowed in only 69 IP). If Julio can’t close effectively, the Orioles could up a proverbial creek. The rest of the bullpen is okay. B.J. Ryan is a good setup man, and fellow leftie Steve Kline was signed as a free agent. John Parrish can also be effective in a short relief role.

Position players: The Orioles have a top-notch lineup, even if Sammy Sosa, acquired from the Cubs in a trade late in the offseason, doesn’t get the job done. Javy Lopez can still hit, but expect him to DH some this season as the Orioles begin to use Geronimo Gil behind the plate more often. With Melvin Mora (.340-27-104) and Miguel Tejada (.311-34-150) joined by solid hitters like Lopez, B.J. Surhoff, and Larry Bigbie, there’s little question the Orioles will score runs. They’ll be okay defensively, too, provided Sosa isn’t an albatross in right field. Rafael Palmeiro drove in 88 runs in 154 games last season. The Orioles want him to DH, but the options at first base are limited, which is why Jay Gibbons will probably get a chance to win a job there. Offensively, this isn’t a terribly deep club, but if the front-line players stay healthy, they will score plenty of runs.

Overall analysis: Lee Mazzilli had a good learning experience in his first year. He works well with pitching coach and former big-league manager Ray Miller, and overall, he lets his coaches deal with players. Mazzilli did a good job dealing with young pitchers like Cabrera and Bedard late in the season, and the confidence they gained from pitching well needs to carry over to 2005. With the offense Baltimore has, they can outslug teams. But to become a contender in a top-heavy division, the Orioles need Ponson, Lopez, and especially Cabrera to consistently give them solid innings. If that happens, and Julio can re-emerge as an elite closer, the Orioles have a chance to surprise. Otherwise, they’ll be a distant third, just like 2004.

4. Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays are blessed with two strong starting pitchers. 2003 Cy Young winner Roy Halladay slumped for a time, and missed most of the second half of the season. It’s expected he will rebound after an 8-8 campaign. Ted Lilly tried to pick up the slack, as he pitched well enough (12-10, 4.05) to represent the Blue Jays in the All-Star Game. The Jays expect Halladay and Lilly to anchor the rotation. The end of the rotation will be led by youngster Dave Bush, who was pretty good as a rookie (5-4, 3.69 in 16 starts). Former starter Miguel Batista spent time in the bullpen last year, making five saves, and he has been moved back to the pen after the Jays tried out Justin Speier as the closer. Inconsistent Josh Towers will serve as the fourth starter, and youngster Gustavo Chacin, who went 18-2 in the minors last year, will have a chance to win the fifth starter job.

While the rotation is potentially stable, the bullpen is anything but. The Blue Jays don’t have an established closer and will go with Batista, who was perfect in five save opportunities in 2004. The former ten-game winner will yield to Jason Frasor if he fails. Frasor picked up 17 saves in 19 chances last year. Speier, Billy Koch (a former closer), and Kerry Ligtenberg will eat plenty of innings for Toronto.

Position players: The Toronto lineup is filled with talented players who have underachieved, mixed in with some solid veteran bats. The Jays signed Corey Koskie away from the Twins. The oft-injured third baseman has the ability to hit 25-30 home runs if he can stay healthy, which is a big question mark annually. Russ Adams and veteran Frank Catalanotto will set the table for Koskie (.251-25-71 in 118 games), Vernon Wells (.272-23-67), and Reed Johnson (.270-10-61). The Jays need Wells and Johnson to drive in more runs and hit for more power than they did last year. Expect Alex Rios, 24, to win a job in the outfield and provide a solid bat and good speed to the lineup.

Overall analysis: While they’re more balanced than Baltimore, the Jays have more question marks. Can Batista get it done for a full season as closer? Can the Jays fill the gap in the rotation left by moving Batista to the ‘pen? Will Halladay stay healthy? Will Lilly have another solid season? Can Vernon Wells recover from a rough season? Can Koskie, now $17 million richer, stay healthy for a full season? Manager John Gibbons hopes his team can stay healthy, and that his big bats in the middle of the order can produce some runs. Bush, 24, becomes a key presence in the starting rotation in his first full season in the bigs because of Batista’s move. With so many question marks and so little key depth, the Blue Jays have the look of a team that won’t be able to stay in this race.

5. Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Pitchers: With few available options, the Rays will turn to 24-year-old Dewon Brazelton as their top starter. While Brazelton has shown some promise, he has yet to win on the road in 15 career starts. Luckily for him and his team, his first three starts are at home, so he has a chance to develop some confidence before he starts a road game. Youngsters Mark Hendrickson (10-15, 4.81), Scott Kazmir (stolen from the Mets last summer for Victor Zambrano), and Doug Waechter (5-7, 6.01) are competing for spots in the rotation, along with veteran free-agent acquisitions Denny Neagle and Hideo Nomo. Neagle might not make the team, but Nomo’s job appears safe at this point.

The bullpen will be called on again this season to pitch more than its fair share of innings, as none of the Rays’ starters can be counted on for consistently long outings. Closer Danys Baez slumped last summer, but had a decent season overall, and appears to have adapted well to the new role. Jesus Colome throws in the high 90s and will serve as the main setup man. They are joined in the ‘pen by former All-Star Lance Carter, Travis Harper, Trever Miller, and Bobby Seay.

Position players: Like the pitching staff, the Devil Rays’ lineup is stacked with young players. They recently signed Detroit and Milwaukee castoff Alex Sanchez, who will play center field. Carl Crawford (.296, 19 triples, 59 steals) will play left, and Jose Cruz, Jr., will open in right field. Aubrey Huff (.297-29-104) will hit cleanup, and the Rays are hopeful that Josh Phelps (17 HR) and a returning Rocco Baldelli will provide protection for Huff in the middle of the order. Julio Lugo returns at shortstop, and the Devil Rays are banking on B.J. Upton to be ready to play every day at the big-league level. Toby Hall is an okay defensive catcher who handles the young staff well, and he hits well enough to stay in the everyday lineup. The problem for this team will be finding a run producer to complement Huff and take pressure off him. They’ll be in a real mess if Huff slumps at the start of the season like he did last year.

Overall analysis: It’s another year, and another insanely young team for Lou Pinella in Tampa. Pinella hasn’t run out of patience yet, but he’s appeared close at times to imploding in the dugout. With so many young players on board, it’s hard to imagine Pinella being able to relax at any point. Because there is no true veteran leadership available, Pinella sometimes speaks up to try putting a charge in his team. This won’t work forever, but if management thinks Neagle or Nomo can be an answer to the leadership void in the clubhouse, they’re sadly mistaken. If the young players produce as expected, and the pitching staff matures under Chuck Hernandez’s leadership, the Rays have a chance to surprise. However, minimal run production outside of Huff, and underdeveloped starting pitching probably dooms the Rays to last place again.

No comments: