AL East: The AL East has proven, time and again, to be the toughest division in baseball. With the Yankees and Red Sox being able to outspend just about everybody, and the Blue Jays consistently putting forth good teams that would thrive in any other division, the top of this group is the best in baseball. Throw in the very young, very promising artists formerly known as Devil Rays, and you have yourself 4 teams that provide serious match-up issues for any other team in MLB. Oh and there's the Orioles.
Boston Red Sox-
The Red Sox have supplanted their rivals from New York as the model franchise in Major League Baseball. Very much like the Yankees and Braves of the 90's, the Red Sox have found the right mix of high-priced, impact free agents; useful, veteran role-players; and talented, young products of a fruitful farm system all whilst avoiding too many busts at any level (JD Drew...I'm looking at you). Last year the Red Sox won their second World Series in four years, and they look to be the favorites again this year. The Red Sox made no major moves this offseason, with their biggest being the very economical signing of Sean Casey, the lovable (albeit immobile) veteran who provides a solid left-handed bat off the bench for the team.
The BoSox are loaded at almost every position. Catcher Jason Varitek returns to provide a potent bat and average defense. Varitek's biggest contributions however probably come as the team's unquestioned leader (though i think he looks like a moron with that "C" on his jersey). At the corner infield positions, Mike Lowell and Kevin Youkilis are unspectacular but productive players who get on base at very high rates. Lowell also provides above average defense. Up the middle, Julio Lugo and Dustin Pedroia are a solid double-play combo. Pedroia has decent pop in his bat and is very adept at finding a way to get on base, setting the tables for the big guns. In the outfield, JD Drew provides a good, if grossly overpaid, bat and good corner defense. A five-tool player once (he's lost some speed), Drew has never put it all together and projected that he doesn't care to, but he is still a useful player and the deep pockets of the Redsox aren't harmed too much by his hefty salary. Uber-prospect Jacoby Ellsbury, a fan-favorite especially among those of the female persuasion, supplants defensive stalwart and superbly named Coco Crisp. Ellsbury combines great defense with a strong arm and fleet feet with a productive bat that should add power as he matures. In left field roams Manny Ramirez. Ramirez has shown himself to be the most productive and consistent bat this side of A-Rod in the majors over the last 10 years and there is no reason for that to change. At DH, David "Big Papi" Ortiz is a lovable, enormous teddy bear who happens to be far-and-away the best DH in the American League. The bench, comprised of the aforementioned Casey and Crisp, as well as Alex Cora and Doug Mirabelli, is solid.
The rotation is imposing. Josh Beckett was one of the best pitchers on earth last year and, assuming he can avoid the blister problems that plagued him early in his career, should be again in 2008. Curt Schilling is old as hell. He is liable to break down at any moment. Still, when he's rested and on his game, Schilling gets by with guile and deception to provide about 6 good innings a start. Daisuke Matsuzaka was good but not great in his first season in the States. Able to throw about a billion different pitches, he should only improve as he adjusts to the longer MLB season. The final 2 spots in the rotation will be filled from the pool of Tim Wakefield, Jon Lester, and Clay Buchholz. Wakefield is still pitching...somehow. The man with the knuckleball baffles everyone, including himself. Lester is an inspirational story, battling back from lymphoma, who mixes pitches well as a young gun with a moderately high ceiling. Buchholz is the most promising arm the Red Sox have had since Roger Clemens. He's already made an impact: he threw a no-hitter against the Orioles in early September of last year (granted that isn't saying much). But Buchholz can hum it in there and has an extremely bright future. The bullpen is great too. Led by stud closer Jonathan Papelbon, the corps of Manny Delcarmen, Hideki Okajima, Javier Lopez, Mike Timlin, and Kyle Snyder simply knows how to get outs. They also have Julian Tavarez and that's always fun.
New York Yankees-
If such a thing exists in New York, the Yankees appear to be in somewhat of a rebuilding year, if only because there is so much uncertainty surrounding the team. After abandoning their winning formula from the 90s and throwing more and more money at aging and past their prime veterans for the first half of this decade, the Bronx Bombers have decided to get back to basics and develop their own talent to fill in around their superstar free agents. The biggest change this season was Joe Torre out, Joe Girardi in. An exchange of Italian, former catchers who have been Manager of the Year, this really won't have too big an impact, as managers frankly don't have that much effect over the course of an entire season.
The Yankees, once again, will not have to worry about scoring runs. Catcher Jorge Posada was given a new 4 year contract after an abnormally good season in 2007. While it is unlikely he'll repeat that performance, he will provide the Yanks with a powerful bat and solid defense. Plus we'll probably get to see his kid at the All-Star Game again and that's always fun. At the corners we have a two different tales. At third base, Alex Rodriguez renegotiated a 10 year contract, and is probably going to be worth it the whole way through. There is no better player in the league right now; you can argue for whoever you like, it doesn't matter because you're wrong. Over at 1st base...uh...who knows? The spot will likely go to whoever performs best in spring amongst Wilson Betemit, Shelley Duncan, Chris Woodward, Jason Lane, and Morgan Ensberg, with Lane and Ensberg probably being the favorites. They might attempt to move Hideki Matsui or Johnny Damon to 1st, though that appears to be unlikely. At short, Derek Jeter continues to be one of the best shortstops in the majors. His defense (which was never good) and speed are on the decline, but he still hits for power and gets on base at high rates. Robinson Cano, who received a 4 year extension in the offseason, is one of baseball's finest 2nd basemen. He can do everything and could even get better as he enters his prime years. The outfield is getting old, but is still productive. Hideki Matsui doesn't move well any more, which limits his defensive abilities and basepath effectiveness. Still, he's good for 25 HRs/.370 OBP/.480 SLG, worse could be done. Worse is done if Johnny Damon is playing. He's been in decline since he left Boston (certain fans will state something about karma...not unfounded). Damon is losing power and speed, and he still has the arm strength of a 12 year old girl. But, the Yankees are paying him a buttload and he's not completely useless so he will continue to play. Bobby Abreu used to be a stellar 5-tool player. Now, he's a poor-man's Bobby Abreu. Still, that's 5 categories and he should continue to be a useful player in the pinstripes. Melky Cabrera seems to be the odd man out because of his small contractual obligations. He is kinda a younger, chunkier version of Abreu now, and will undoubtedly be a major contributor whenever a player goes down with injury. At DH, Jason Giambi...is...sad...Two players to watch are the very young Austin Jackson and Jose Tabata (who is younger than both your authors), but the two are probably a couple years away.
The pitching staff is the major is issue for the Yankees. Chien-Ming Wang is the rotation's best pitcher. An excellent groundball pitcher, Wang would actually be even better than he is with a better defense behind him. Phil Hughes will also be in the rotation. A great prospect, it's only a matter of time and polish before Hughes becomes one of the premiere pitchers in the American League. The rest of the rotation is a mystery. Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte are on the roster and they have rotation spots to lose. Both are getting older and their effectiveness is dwindling. Mussina was so bad at one point last season, Torre was considering shutting him down for the year, but he finished strong. Pettitte has his own issues with steroid allegations and the impending mess that Congress may bring to him (instead of taking care of things like war, the economy, you know...important things). Other candidates are young Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain. Kennedy is a very good, young pitcher...but he's unpolished and could use some innings in the bullpen. Chamberlain was a phenom out of the pen last year. But starters are more important than relievers, and Chamberlain's incredibly impressive heat, two good secondary pitches, and solid frame lend him to a starting role. Still, it will be interesting to see if he remains as effective in that role. (Of course, he may not have to because Girardi may keep him in a setup role.) The bullpen is weak. Mariano Rivera is still a great closer. He's the best reliever ever and should continue to be one of the best in the league. After that, the ranks are thin. Kei Igawa and LaTroy Hawkins are fine. Kyle Fansworth is insane and not that good. Nobody else is really worth mentioning.
Toronto Blue Jays-
The Blue Jays are a truly puzzling team. Run by J.P. Riccardi, a Billy Beane disciple, they have held steady as a good but not good-enough team for the last 5 years or so. They spend like they want to be one of the big players, yet they end up relying upon some of their bargain boys to bail them out. They're two big moves of the offseason were also quit odd. The first was the signing of David Eckstein to play shortstop. Eckstein is a fairly worthless player. More on him later. The other big move was an essentially one-for-one trade of Troy Glaus to the Cardinals for Scott Rolen. This is a peculiar trade because Rolen is older, has more miles on him, hits for less power, no longer plays great defense, and is more expensive than Glaus. Still, there are enough good players on this team that they'll be shooting for 90 wins and 85 is a pretty sure thing.
At catcher, the tandem of Gregg Zaun and Rod Barajas makes for little in the way of offensive fireworks, but provides solid defense and isn't a complete liability at the plate. In addition, because of their similar skill sets and the ability to platoon lefty/righty, there is almost no drop off when the two are interchanged, making the job of manager John Gibbons that much easier. The corners are solid. Rolen, the new third basemen, was covered earlier. He is clearly on the decline and his greatest asset, his defense, will certainly suffer on the turf of the Rogers Centre. Still, there are plenty of worse third baggers out there and the change of scenery from a bad situation in St. Louis may help rejuvenate Rolen's career. At first base, Lyle Overbay is a good player who fits well in this lineup. Overbay had a down year in 2007 due to nagging injuries that limited him to only 122 games and hindered his performance. If he's healthy, you can expect at least 35 doubles, around 18 HRs, and a .450+ SLG, to go with good defense. Up the middle is probably the biggest weakness in the Jays' starting 9. 2B Aaron Hill exploded last year for 17 HRs, almost doubling his previous career total. In addition he hit 47 doubles and his SLG went up almost 70 points. He did also strike out 36 times more than in 2006 so it would seem that he's taking a much more free-swinging approach. Hill probably won't duplicate his 2007 performance, but he'll likely do better than 2006. At shortstop, David Eckstein is a cataclysm of terrible. Completely incapable of playing anything that resembles good defense, Eckstein isn't much of a threat with the bat either. He doesn't get on base well (though he is praised for working the count hard, he rarely walks...24 in a season is pitiful) and has absolutely no power. Still, he is praised for being a scrapper and a gamer (which really just translates to: he's short, unathletic, and really has no business being a major league baseball player). That being said, he is a slight offensive upgrade over incumbent shortstop John McDonald. But, McDonald is a very good defensive player at the infield's most important position. It is puzzling why a team that has multiple ground ball pitchers (including ace Roy Halladay) would switch out a superior defensive shortstop for one that barely qualifies as an affront to infielders everywhere, when the lineup impact is minimal. In the outfield, Vernon Wells is the Jays' highest paid player but did not play like it last year. It's probable that this was just an aberration and Wells will go back to being one of the better hitting centerfielders in the game, but there is an outside chance that Wells has become the new Adrian Beltre and become complacent with his gigantic contract. In left field, Reed Johnson is a place holder until Adam Lind proves capable of handling full time duties. Johnson is a capable 4th outfielder who provides some pop and good corner outfield defense. Lind has been a top prospect in the Jays' system since he was drafted. He finally seems to be ready at age 25. Lind can hit for power and shows a solid if unspectacular glove in left. RF Alex Rios had a fantastic 2007 and has proven to be a legitimate 5-tool player. Easily the Jays' best and most valuable position player, Rios should be expected to perform at an All-Star level. Another player worth watching is mega-prospect Travis Snider. Thought probably a few years away (as he only reached high-A last year), Snider is the best prospect in the Jays' system and could force his way into the OF. DH Frank Thomas is older than dirt but still highly effective, providing an imposing bat in the middle of the lineup. The Jays bench is a strength with players such as Barajas, Johnson, Matt Stairs, McDonald, Russ Adams, and Marco Scutaro.
The Blue Jays' rotation is in good hands at the top with Roy Halladay. A real workhorse, Halladay walks almost nobody and keeps the opposition inside the ballpark. Halladay doesn't strike out players at the rates he used to, but he is very adept at using all his pitches to force weak ground balls (although David Eckstein may ruin everything...I cannot stress how much I dislike David Eckstein). AJ Burnett was a big free agent signing for 2006 and he has been very good for the Jays since then. A strikeout pitcher through and through, Burnett does struggle with control sometimes. The rest of the rotation, Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum, and Jesse Litsch is young but has proven to be solid. All above or around league average, the put their offense in a position to win. One player to watch is the effective yet hideous Gustavo Chacin, who is coming back from season ending shoulder surgery. The bullpen is very deep. Closer BJ Ryan will be looking to come back from Tommy John surgery, and if he does, he is one of the best in the game. The rest of the bullpen, including Jeremy Accardo, Jason Frasor, Scott Downs, Brian Tallet, and Brandon League, is a solid collection.
Tampa Bay Rays-
Things could not be better for the Rays (though the name change is about as unfortunate as it gets). After years of being the worst team in the Majors, numerous productive drafts are finally producing results. The Rays will almost certainly be the most improved team in baseball this coming year. In fact, this team may only be a year or two from challenging for a playoff spot.
Catcher is easily the weakest position for the Rays, as Dioner Navarro is average at best. His backup won't be much better as it will be from the pool of young Shawn Riggans, Mike DiFelice (who is still alive, apparently), and Josh Paul. At the corners, two former uber-prospects make their homes. At first, Carlos Pena had a monster breakout season last year, clubbing 46 HRs with a very impressive .627 SLG and a .411 OBP. Pena may finally have reached his tremendous potential that had him as one of the top prospects in baseball 5 years ago. At 3rd, Evan Longoria (yes, just like the male version of Mrs. Tony Parker) is a rookie of the year favorite. Just a wonderful hitter, Longoria should be a mainstay at the hot corner for the next decade. The double-play combo of Jason Bartlett and Akinori Iwamura leaves a little to be desired in the power department, but both provide a consistent bat and good defense. Outfielder Carl Crawford is hands-down the best player in franchise history for the Rays, and that certainly won't change in 2008. Crawford is lighting-fast, averaging 53.6 SBs the past 5 years. In addition, he has developed more power and a more selective eye at the plate (though his walk totals remain too low for a man with his speed). RF Rocco Baldelli is a similar player to Crawford, but hasn't been able to stay healthy, preventing him from achieving any long-term success. If he is unable to go, Jonny Gomes can step in a be a good power bat with solid defense. If Baldelli does stay healthy, Gomes becomes arguably the best 4th outfielder in the bigs. CF BJ Upton is a freak who is still only 24 years old. A truly marvelous offensive weapon, Upton will only improve off a fantastic 2007 and has finally found a home in center after various debacles attempted at 3rd and short. DH will likely be manned by Cliff "Not Another Groin Problem" Floyd. A very useful and even dangerous hitter when healthy, Floyd was a very smart and cheap free-agent pickup for the Rays. When Floyd doesn't play, expect Gomes to fill in. The bench is also quite good with players such as Gomes, Willy Aybar, Ben Zobrist, and the incredibly versatile Joel Guzman providing a good safety net.
The pitching staff has been the Achilles heel for the Rays in the past, and while things are looking better, it still seems to be a couple years away from truly becoming an asset. The top of the rotation appears to be in good shape. Ace Scott Kazmir led the AL in strikeouts with 239 in 2007 at the tender age of 23. He will only improve and should win even more games as the offense matures behind him. Kazmir continues to make the Mets look like absolute idiots deserving of being viciously beaten for trading him for Victor Zambrano (who was last seen being cut by the Orioles...ouch). #2 James Shields received a 7-year contract extension during the offseason as a reward for his very good 2007. Shields struck out a lot of batters and pitched deep into games while not walking many, but he did give up a lot of HRs, something he will have to cut down on if he is to continue his ascension to the upper echelon of AL starters. Matt Garza was acquired along with SS Bartlett for OF Delmon Young, a supremely talented, other-worldly immature player. Garza is no slouch though. One of the Twins prize pitching prospects of the past 5 years, Garza proved in a half-season stint with Minnesota that with some polish, he could become a very good starter. The rest of the rotation is still up in the air. Edwin Jackson, a former star prospect for the Dodgers, has never turned his tremendous tools into results; but he will likely be given another shot to prove himself. The other rotation spot could be filled by the unimpressive trio of JP Howell, Andy Sonnanstine, and Jason Hammel. However, any of these players would simply be keeping their spot warm for the trifecta of excellence that is Wade Davis, David Price, and Jake McGee. Price is still a few years away, but Davis and McGee are close to being big-league ready and all three grade very well in every category. The bullpen will almost certainly be better. The signing of Troy Percival to close was a decent one. Percival does not have nearly the stuff he once did, but he's still capable and should provide stability. Setup man Dan Wheeler is excellent, and the squad of Gary Glover, Trever Miller, Al Reyes, Grant Balfour, and Kurt Birkins should certainly be able to get the job done.
The Orioles are going to be terrible, and it kills me to say as much. But, for the first time in 10 years, the team seems to be moving in a positive direction by refusing to overpay old and declining free agents and hoarding talent through trades and productive drafts. The two biggest moves of the offseason were the Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard trades, and the Orioles graded well on their returns for both. 2B Brian Roberts might still be traded, though that is unlikely with the moves of Tejada and Bedard, but the Orioles will almost certainly make at least a few more moves trade-wise or in the bargain bin of free agents still available. This is going to be a rough year for the Birds, and the team is still at least 3 years away from even thinking of being much of anything.
Catcher Ramon Hernandez is one of the few sure things in the lineup. An above-average hitter and defensive catcher (who throws out runners well), Hernandez has drawn praise in the past for his handling of young pitching staffs, something the Orioles will certainly have this season. His backup, Guillermo Quiroz, a former top-prospect in the Blue Jays system known for his bat, was a wavier-wire pickup for the team and should receive more than a few opportunities to prove himself. A long-shot to make the team is wunderkind Matt Wieters, ranked by many as the best catching prospect in all of baseball and is easily the best position prospect the Orioles have had other than Nick Markakis in the past 10 or 15 years. Wieters is still probably 3 years away, but he compares very favorably to Joe Mauer at age 21. The corners are cringe-worthy to say the least. Melvin Mora is old and ineffectual. He no longer plays good defense and is losing bat speed rapidly. Unfortunately, he has a big contract that makes him almost impossible to move so he likely will be wasting time and at-bats for the team this year (though he does have quintuplets...which does not make you a better baseball player in any way). At first base, the tandem of Kevin Millar and Aubrey Huff makes me want to cry. Huff is a decent player with some pop, but is far too streaky and is clearly in decline. I would say that Millar was in decline, but that would mean he was any good to begin with. A player whose biggest contribution is apparently in the clubhouse (though he becomes an asshole if he's not getting playing time), Millar can't hit anything other than a fastball and doesn't even do that well. Both play average defense at best. One player who may break in to the corner rotation is Scott Moore, who was acquired from the Cubs for Steve Traschel last season. Moore isn't a much better player than the other three mentioned, but he is still young and fairly untested, so there is a possiblity that he may improve with playing time. At second, Brian Roberts is one of the team's top players and one of the better cornerstones in baseball. Capable of stealing plenty of bases (50 in 2007), Roberts has good pop for a 2B (42 doubles, 12 HRs, .432 SLG last year) who walks a fair amount. In addition, he plays very good defense. Nobody knows who's going to play short for the Birds, in the wake of the Tejada trade. It is possible that they could go out and sign a free agent or swing a trade (though really the only legitimate trading piece left is Roberts, who, as I said, probably isn't moving anywhere now), but the crop of available players is thin. So it likely comes down to a spring training competition betwixt Luis Hernandez, Freddie Bynum, Brandon Fahey, and personal favorite Oscar Salazar, with Hernandez being the early favorite. None are dynamos with the bat and all provide slick fielding, though Salazar is the best hitter, though he fits in more at 3rd and likely is a career Quad-A player. The outfield, for the first time since the days of Brady Anderson and BJ Surhoff, is shaping up nicely for the Orioles. In right field, Nick Markakis is the team's best player. Possessing all 5-tools, he is universally acknowledged as one of the best young outfielders in the game and should continue to progress. In center, Adam Jones immediately is given the full-time job after being the centerpiece of the Bedard trade. Also a 5-tool player, he comes to Baltimore as arguably the most highly touted position player in the Mariners organization since Alex Rodriguez. Left field will likely be filled by Luke Scott, acquired from Houston in the Tejada trade. A decent fielder with some good pop, Scott is probably better suited as a 4th outfielder, but is probably the best option the Orioles have while prospect Nolan Reimold gets at least another full year of seasoning. The DH situation is rough, as Huff, Millar, and the ever-injured Jay Gibbons will likely rotate. The bench is certainly nothing to write home about as it is compiled by the losers of the various pathetic position battles as well as average outfielders Tike Redman and Jay Payton. We may also have a Ben Davis sighting, which would excite me if it didn't make my cry.
The pitching staff is young and unproven, especially with the departure of ace Erik Bedard, perhaps the best left-hander this side of Johan Santana. The top 3 of the rotation seem to be set with Jeremy Guthrie, Adam Loewen, and Daniel Cabrera. Guthrie was a pleasant surprise last year and turned out to be the team's second best pitcher. He becomes the de facto ace. Loewen is a former top prospect who's battled injuries the past couple of years. If he can stay healthy, he could quickly become one of the better young guns in the American League. Cabrera has some of the best stuff out there but is incredibly inconsistent, a problem that stems from his lanky 6'9" frame, which makes it difficult for him to repeat his throwing motion. When Cabrera is on however, he is near unhittable, and with the unsettled closer situation, Baltimore may move the big man to the pen. After those three, the rotation boils down to a competition amongst youngsters. In the mix are home-grown prospects Garrett Olson, Hayden Penn, and Radhames Liz, who all have good stuff but are inconsistent or battling injuries; swing-man Brian Burres, who pitched well last year but doesn't have the stuff to make much of an impact in the rotation long-term; veteran free agent Steve Traschel, who was brought in again as a non-roster invitee; and Tejada trade products Matt Albers and Troy Patton, both of whom seem to be fairly polished with Patton projecting pretty well. It is possible that another free agent, such as Kyle Lohse or Josh Fogg, could be brought in as another competitor. The bullpen doesn't offer much stability either. With former closer Chris Ray out for most of, if not all of, the year with Tommy John surgery (as is Danys Baez, but that is actually a good thing as he should not be allowed near a pitching mound), Georger Sherrill, acquired in the Bedard trade, becomes the top candidate to close, though Liz, with his electric fastball, could fill the role if he loses out on a rotation spot. The rest of the bullpen is average and its success will depend on the development of young arms, such as Dennis Sarfate, Jim Hoey, and those that lose out on rotation spots. They will be joined by vets Greg Aquino, Jaime Walker, and Chad Bradford.