Saturday, February 11, 2012

2012 MLB Preview: AL East

This is going to one of six blogs I'm going to do over the next month and a half to get everyone ready for the 2012 MLB season. I'm going to go division by division, going over every MLB team on what they did over the offseason and what they still need to before spring training begins. I'll predict the standings and opening day line-up as well. These predictions of standing will be under the impression Bud Selig's 2 team wild card system will be approved for the 2012 postseason. Today, I will start with the ever popular A.L. East.

The New York Yankees have been somewhat quiet this offseason, as far as huge multimillion dollar deals are concerned. They have, yet again, come into an offseason looking for starting pitching which has plagued them in the postseason in years past. The Yankees acquired Michael Pineda from Seattle, sending prospect catcher Jesus Montero to the Mariners. This trade came as a surprise to some in New York as many viewed Montero as the man to take over the back-stop once Jorge Posada called it a career, which coincidentally was also this offseason. The Yankees also signed free agent pitch Hiroki Kuroda to a 1 year/10 million dollar deal. Kuroda posted a 13-16 win/loss record, which were both career highs. His ERA was 3.07 and he retired 161 batters.

With this two moves, the Yankees starting rotation right now sits at 6 people, but it is likely that one will throw out of the pen, most likely Phil Hughes. C.C. Sabathia, Freddy Garcia, Michael Pineda, Hiroki Kuroda, and Ivan Nova will be the Yankee's 2012 rotation, with a very strong bullpen with Jaba Chamberlain, Rafael Soriano, and future Hall of Famer, Mariano Rivera. The Yankees have recently been in the news trying to deal A.J. Burnett, and it seems the only team biting is the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Yankees offered A.J. Burnett to the Pirates for OF Garrett Jones, among others and the incentive of paying 1/3 of Burnett's 33MM dollar contract. The Pirates have reportedly turned that down, but they are still negotiating.

Offensively, New York is set in that category. Besides losing their longtime catcher, Jorge Posada, the offense looks absolutely the same. A few spring training invites have been sent out to utility infielder Bill Hall, long ball hitter Russell Branyan, and brother of Phillies outfielder Laynce, Jayson Nix. The Yankees are also looking for DH help, talking to former Yankee Hideki Matsui, Phillies outfielder Raul Ibanez, and former Red Sox, Tiger, and Yankee, Johnny Damon. With not much money to spend this offseason, where luxury tax is concerned, the Yankees have done a great job filling the holes. With that, this will be the Yankees starting lineup opening day:

1. Derek Jeter, SS
2. Robinson Cano, 2B
3. Curtis Granderson, CF
4. Mark Teixeira, 1B
5. Alex Rodriguez, 3B
6. Nick Swisher, RF
7. Andruw Jones (Ibanez/Damon/Matsui if signed), DH
8. Russell Martin, C
9. Brett Gardner, LF

Final Thoughts: Expect to see Derek Jeter get a lot more time played as the DH this season, and a lot more of Eduardo Nunez at shortstop this season. Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson both had outstanding years for New York and have earned those spots in the Yankee's line up. That being said, the Yankees have the depth to repeat a divisional championship in 2012, and I see them winning the AL East by a land slide.

Next team, the Tampa Bay Rays. Buster Olney ranks the Rays #1 in the Power Rankings to start the 2012 season, and rightfully so with the possibility of a 7 man rotation. (Could realistically do it, but not going to happen.) Matt Moore is the top rated prospect by many in all of baseball. James Shields will have another dominate season. Not to mention the also have Jeff Neimann, Jeremy Hellickson, and David Price. They have a very sharp offense set up for 2012, including guys coming back as well as newly acquired free agents. That being said, like the Yankees, its been a quiet offseason for Tampa Bay.

First, where is Tampa Bay coming from? The Rays were a miracle Wild Card Playoff team in October after the exhilarating end of the regular season. Evan Longoria hit a walk-off homerun to beat the Yankees, and with a little help from the Orioles beating the Red Sox, and the Rays were in the postseason. They would later lose to the Rangers in 4 games in the ALDS, but still many considered it to be a promising end to a season for Tampa. The one thing that will help Tampa Bay get back to the playoffs will be fan support. It was noted that the Rays did not sell out their final playoff game against the Rangers, which is a cause for concern. The Miami Marlins have gone through the same issue of not putting bodies in seats. Florida, for whatever reason, is not big into baseball. In a span of 3 season, both teams have done complete makeovers to their uniforms, names, and other aspects to the franchises in hopes to sell tickets. In Tampa Bay's case, they have one of the best farm systems in the league. That alone, for me at least, would get me excited enough to go to games. But, enough about their problems, lets look at the improvements of the Rays.

The only loss the Rays suffered was first baseman Casey Kotchman signing with the Cleveland Indians. Other then that, they have the same team as they did last year, minus the following signings. First, the Rays signed Luke Scott to be their primary designated hitter. Amidst the signing of Prince Fielder to the Tigers, the Rays made their next move by signing Carlos Pena, who previously played for Tampa from 2007-2010. And, just three days after, they signed utility infielder Jeff Keppinger. Here is where Tampa Bay sits for opening day:

1. Desmond Jennings, LF
2. B.J. Upton, CF
3. Evan Longoria, 3B
4. Ben Zobrist, 2B
5. Carlos Pena, 1B
6. Matt Joyce, RF
7. Luke Scott/Sam Fuld, DH
8. Jose Molina, C
9. Sean Rodriguez, SS

Final Thoughts: The Rays have the potential to be a dominant force in the American League. That success is up to the Rays and it's fan base. Support goes a long way. Look at what it does to teams like Philadelphia and Milwaukee. They have a team that could possibly contend against the Yankees for the top spot in the AL East. Their young pitching has to hold up, and I think it will.

The Toronto Blue Jays are going to be a very fun team to watch in years to come. They were in the mix for Yu Darvish and Prince Fielder this offseason, but really didn't have a "big" signing. The Jays are set to start the 2012 season with a new logo and new jerseys, which should give the team motivation as the new logo reminds us all of the roots and past teams the Blue Jays had. They have a very young, power hitting offense and an average pitching rotation and a very good bullpen.

To start the conversation, lets get the ridiculous out of the way. Manny Ramirez has been tied into the Blue Jays as one of the three teams he has been talking to about signing with this offseason. Manny, who faces a 50 game suspension (reduced from 100 games after being reinstatement to MLB) for failing a drug test, retired from baseball last season with the Rays when he did test position for PEDs. I don't see the Blue Jays as a team that would want Manny and his antics. They are forming into their own as a contender in their tough division. They don't need the extra distraction.

Moving onto what they did accomplish this offseason. They signed right hander Tim Redding who has played for the Mets, Nationals, and Astros. They also improved their bullpen by signing closer Fransisco Cordero, who was not brought back by the Cincinnati Reds and veteran relief pitcher Darrel Oliver who had three stints with the Texas Rangers, among half a dozen other teams. Speaking of veterans, the Jays inked 44 year old utility infielder Omar Vizquel. As far as minor league deals with spring training invites go, they have signed Drew Carpenter and Nelson Figueroa, among others. With all of these pitchers being signed, it will be interesting what the rotation will look like when opening day rolls around. Here's what I see the Jays lineup looking like on opening day:

1. Yunel Escobar, SS
2. Eric Thames, LF
3. Brett Lawrie, 3B
4. Jose Bautista, RF
5. Adam Lind, 1B
6. Edwin Encarnacion, DH
7. Kelly Johnson, 2B
8. Colby Rasmus, CF
9. Jeff Mathis/J.P. Arencibia, C

Final Thoughts: At best, this team will be a few wins over .500 this season. I don't think their starting pitching can get them enough wins to contend in the tough AL East. Its too bad Roy Oswalt told them he wasn't interested in joining their team, because I think Roy could have helped Toronto greatly with his veteran arm.  Their offense will be something fun to watch with home run champion of 2011, Jose Bautista and company. I think the Blue Jays are a few years away from being a big time contender in the MLB.

The Boston Red Sox are going to either be new and improved, or the same beer drinking chicken eating video game playing during the game headache as they were last year. It all depends on how new skipper Bobby Valentine handles the team. As most of the attention was on Theo Epstein leaving for the Chicago Cubs and previous manager Terry Francona not returning to Boston, there was serious worry in Boston as far as 2012 was concerned. With that, Boston remained active this offseason in hopes to get back on track.

The big move Boston made was acquiring Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney from the A's in a 5 player trade. They also signed Nick Punto to a two year deal. They lost some key players to trades and free agency. Jonathon Popalbon signed with the Philadelphia Phillies and Marco Scutaro was traded to the Rockies. They did, however, avoid arbitration with Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz. Veteran pitcher John Maine signed a minor league deal with an invite to spring training, as did Carlos Silva, Aaron Cook and Rich Hill. Hill, who was released by Boston but then later re-signed, has been with Boston since 2010. The Red Sox starting rotation does not have many concerns, minus the fact that Daisuke Matsuzaka will be back off the DL in 2012 and also if Lester and Beckett can stay healthy. If they can, pitching is great.

The biggest question going into the season is who is going to be the leader of this team? Big Papi is coming to the end of his career and can't be that guy anymore. Kevin Youkilis is aging as well, who was clearly Boston's leader in the locker room. Varitek was also a leader, but he is gone. Other questions loom the Red Sox, though. Will Carl Crawford rebound after a bad 2011 and live up to his monster contract he signed last offseason? Can Ellsbury and Pedroia continue their MVP worthy ways and carry the Red Sox offensively? Lets look at who will surround those two in the Red Sox lineup on opening day:

1. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
2. Dustin Pedroia, 2B
3. Ryan Sweeney (Carl Crawford if healthy), LF
4. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B
5. David Ortiz, DH
6. Kevin Youkilis, 3B
7. Cody Ross, RF
8. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C
9. Mike Alives/Nick Punto, SS

Final Thoughts: As I said before, this is going to be an interesting year for the Red Sox. Bobby Valentine needs to get this team under control so they can compete against the Rays and Yankees in the divisional race. If he doesn't, its going to be another ugly ending for Boston as we all witnessed last season. Red Sox are contenders if they play as a well oiled machine. They will be fighting with the Orioles, otherwise.

I'm not going to give the Baltimore Orioles much time or space on here, because it's not worth your or my time. I will say this. They are in the beginning stages of rebuilding. I think they are improving as far as pitching is concerned. Signing J.J. Hardy to an extension was a good move after the season he had in 2011. But, the Orioles front office needs to learn something. Its that, in baseball, and in many things in life, its about quality and not quantity. Signing 25 people to cheap contracts hoping a few do well for you on the main roster won't get you far. And, trading your great pitchers won't help you either. (See Jeremy Gurthie). They are also in the talks as a team interested in Manny Ramirez. They did make a few nice moves, like I said before, by adding starting pitchers and some power hitters. Tsuyoshi Wada and Wei-Yin Chen will be great additions to the rotation, and if newly signed infielder Nick Johnson has a good spring, he could be the starting first baseman or play a big role as the DH. Here's what opening day will look like for Baltimore:

1. Brian Roberts, 2B
2. J.J. Hardy, SS
3. Nick Markakis, RF
4. Chris Davis/Nick Johnson, 1B
5. Wilson Betemit/Nick Johnson, DH
6. Matt Wieters, C
7. Mark Reynolds, 3B
8. Adam Jones, CF
9. Nolan Reimold, LF

Final Thoughts: Their lineup is very difficult to figure out because of how many new people are on that roster. Those 9 will be the starters, but in what order is the issue. I don't believe anyone knows, too be honest. They won't be the worst team in the league in 2012, but they will again be way under .500 and fall in last place in the AL East. If you're an Orioles fan, prepare for the long haul, because it's going to be a while until you win this division again.

Predicted Standings:

1. New York Yankees (95-67) (Division Champs)
2. Tampa Bay Rays (90-72) (Wild Card)
3. Boston Red Sox (83-79)
4. Toronto Blue Jays (80-82)
5. Baltimore Orioles (65-97)

Next week, I will run down the Detroit Tigers and the rest of the AL Central in the same structure as this blog. I hope everyone enjoys reading this. Please leave your thoughts on here or on the Twitter feed (@WISportsBlog) if you agree, disagree, or want to make a point. I look forward to reading your comments.

Until next time, Beers, Brats, and Championships.

-Andrew Vrchota (@WSB_Andrew)

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