Spring Training Preview: AL East
Posted: Monday February 18, 2008 10:27AM; Updated: Tuesday February 19, 2008 2:37PM
The AL East remains the game's glamour division, but the Red Sox and Yankees could be challenged by Toronto, and an emerging Tampa team is building a contender.
Where: Fort Lauderdale, Florida (Grapefruit League)
2007 record: 69-93 (4th, AL East)
Wow, he's still here? Brian Roberts has been on his way to the Cubs for the better part of a year without actually being dealt. The trade makes sense for both teams, but it appears that the baseball people still don't make all the decisions in Baltimore, hence it hasn't been consummated.
Winter grade: A-. The Bedard trade jumped them from a C+ -- primarily for the so-so haul for Tejada -- to an A-. It was the perfect move for a team that hasn't drafted and developed Adam Jones-caliber talent in a while.
NRI (Non-Roster Invite) to watch: The only pure prospect -- someone with no MLB experience -- to come over in the Tejada deal, Mike Costanzo could push for a job immediately in camp. The left-handed hitter with the so-so glove won't force Melvin Mora off of third base; however, he could be a comparable player to Kevin Millar or Aubrey Huff right now, and could worm his way into some time at first.
Job battle to track: The Orioles don't have a major league shortstop in the organization, and seem prepared to go with Braves reject Luis Hernandez, whose career Triple-A line is .217/.217/.283 with no walks and no steals in about 100 PA. No one's glove makes up for that, so Brandon Fahey, who's also terrible, could slide into a job. They need to find a patch to cover them for themselves for the year.
One move to make: Well, acquiring a shortstop better than Nate Silver would help. After closing the Bedard deal, Adam Jones becomes the Orioles' best prospect since Mike Mussina, the kind of franchise building block they haven't drafted in a long time, at least before taking Matt Wieters last year. Bedard wouldn't be able to get this team above .500, much less into contention, so he won't be missed.
Baseball fans under the age of 30 have little memory of a time when the Orioles were one of the game's flagship franchises, the team of Brooks Robinson and Earl Weaver and Jim Palmer. Now, the Orioles are a member of the underclass, without a winning season since 1997 and with just two post-season appearances in nearly a quarter-century. They've become irrelevant, and only a complete teardown and rebuild, lasting three or four years and comprising several successful drafts, will make it better. There aren't many teams who enter March lacking hope and faith. The Orioles are one of them.
Boston Red Sox
Where: Fort Myers, Florida (Grapefruit League)
2007 record: 96-66 (1st, AL East)
New guys: David Aardsma
Gone guys: Brendan Donnelly, Eric Gagné, Eric Hinske
Winter grade: W (withdrawal). They didn't do anything, effectively withdrawing from the class. That's not a criticism, just an observation. The Red Sox Opening Day roster may well feature 22 of the 25 guys who were on their World Series roster.
NRI to watch: Journeyman right-hander Lee Gronkiewicz has a 2.48 career ERA in the minors with nearly a 4:1 career K/BB. That ratio was 85/12 last year in 78 2/3 innings at three levels. There's not much room in Fenway's bullpen, but an injury to somebody could create an opportunity for the veteran to be this year's Lee Gardner.
Job battle to track: Crisp versus Ellsbury is the only thing close to one, and it will be interesting to see how manager Terry Francona distributes playing time between those two plus J.D. Drew and Manny Ramirez in the corners. The latter two players need enough days off to make the Sox' fourth-outfielder role a regular job. There's a lot of talk about Jed Lowrie versus Julio Lugo at shortstop; realistically, Lugo will have to completely fail again to make that contest happen.
One move to make: It's hard to find one. A fifth outfielder better than Brandon Moss wouldn't hurt, and they do have six starters for five slots, so there's an issue there. This is the best team in baseball, as much a favorite to repeat as any team since the 1999 Yankees. They have frontline talent and depth, they can score and prevent runs, and they have prospects and money with which to make an major add-on in-season if they need to do so. Buck up, New England sports fans; your long stretch of disappointments will end soon.
New York Yankees
Where: Tampa, Florida (Grapefruit League)
2007 record: 94-68 (2nd, AL East)
Wow, he's still here? Alex Rodriguez opted out of his contract amid threats by the Yankees front office that doing so would end his time with the team. Lo and behold, he's back, he's even more wealthy, and he's all but expected to hit 800 career home runs.
NRI to watch: Ex-Met/Indian/National Billy Traber is in camp. Lefties have hit .210/.303/.310 off of him in 232 career PAs, and the Yankees have a need for at least one lefty reliever, particularly a specialist.
Job battle to track: When you spend $200 million on a baseball team, you really should end up with a better collection of first-base candidates than this. With Jason Giambi set as the DH, Shelly Duncan, Wilson Betemit, Morgan Ensberg, Jason Lane, and perhaps a leftover outfielder are all vying for playing time at the cold corner.
One move to make: Trading for a real first baseman, of course. Beyond that, the Yankees need to commit to Melky Cabrera as the everyday center fielder, even if it means making Johnny Damon a $13 million fourth outfielder. They need Cabrera's defense, and Cabrera needs 600 plate appearances to develop his power and be the player he can be.
For the first time in a long time, the Yankees open spring training as a considerable underdog to win the AL East. The Red Sox have moved far ahead of them, as the financial investments they made in older players have paid off a bit better than those that the Yankees made, and their farm system is about a year ahead of the Yankees in supplying inexpensive, good young players. The Yankees aren't necessarily playing for the wild card, but that slot -- beating out the Indians -- is a more realistic goal than first place in the AL East.