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Posted: Thursday February 19, 2009 11:17AM; Updated: Friday February 20, 2009 1:44PM

Spring Training Primer: AL East (cont.)

New York Yankees

A.J. Burnett and CC Sabathia
The Yankees invested a ton of dough in free-agent starters A.J. Burnett and CC Sabathia.
AP

Where: Tampa, Fla. (Grapefruit League)

2008 record: 89-73 (3rd, AL East)

Winter grade: A-
The Yankees didn't blink while signing three of the top five free agents on the market -- A.J. Burnett, CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira -- for a whopping $423.5 million because Bobby Abreu, Jason Giambi, Carl Pavano and Pudge Rodriguez were wiped off the payroll. GM Brian Cashman also re-signed Andy Pettitte to a one-year incentive-laden deal to shore up the back of the rotation while bolstering the bench by trading Wilson Betemit and prospects for versatile, switch-hitting Nick Swisher. Another quality arm or two in the bullpen (in addition to the re-signing of lefty Damaso Marte) to help set up for Mariano Rivera would've earned the full "A."

Key question: Are the Yankees better with Joba Chamberlain as a starter or an eighth-inning stopper?
The Yankees are determined to stick the organization's best arm at the end of the rotation instead of having him be one of the AL's top setup men, but is that the best role for him? In 49 career relief appearances, Chamberlain has a 1.53 ERA with an opposition batting average of .185 and 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings. However, as a starter with at least four days of rest between outings, his numbers get pedestrian (4.01 ERA, .267 opp. avg., 8.7 K/9). A stacked top quartet and a handful of fifth-starter candidates (Phil Hughes, Alfredo Aceves, Humberto Sanchez, Jason Johnson) would afford New York the luxury of having Chamberlain and Rivera essentially douse offenses after the seventh inning.

Prospect to watch: Phil Hughes, SP
Two years after making his big league debut and one after he was deemed untouchable in a potential trade for Johan Santana, the oft-injured Hughes, 22, has been relegated to the role of sixth starter struggling for a roster spot. Should he return to his Sept. '07 form when he won three of five starts with a 2.73 ERA in 29 2/3 innings, he could force his way into the starting rotation and facilitate the move of Chamberlain back to the pen. A less-than-outstanding spring will likely mean starting the season in Triple A Scranton.

Position battle to follow: Center field
Cashman failed to acquire Mike Cameron or Andruw Jones as a potential upgrade, so the likely candidates to fill the spot are incumbents Melky Cabrera (.301 OBP) and Brett Gardner (42 career MLB games; 50 steals between Triple A and the majors in '08). Also in the mix are Johnny Damon -- who has a poor arm and is injury prone, making him a better fit for leftfield -- and Swisher, who played 129 games over the last two years in center but placed last among AL qualifiers with a .219 batting average in '08.

Scout's take: "I'm sorry, I just don't see it: This is not a championship team. CC's performance in big games has to be a concern; I don't have much confidence in him in the big spot. You know Burnett's going to make a couple trips to the DL. The defense behind the pitching is still a horror show. With all this stuff going on with A-Rod, getting Teixeira was even bigger for them, because a lot of their problems last year were actually with scoring runs. [Jorge] Posada is such an important part of what they do, they need him to somehow stay in the lineup. They're going to struggle to get into the playoffs."

Tampa Bay Rays

Where: Port Charlotte, Fla. (Grapefruit League)

2008 record: 97-65 (1st, AL East); Lost in World Series

Winter grade: B
With virtually the whole diamond filled with budding talent, the Rays improved in right field and at DH. Gone are the enigmatic Rocco Baldelli, broken-down Cliff Floyd, powerful-but-limited Eric Hinske and whiff master Jonny Gomes. In their stead are longtime Phillies slugger Pat Burrell, who'll serve as fulltime DH, and lefty-swinging Matt Joyce, 24, who was acquired from Detroit for Edwin Jackson and will compete for at-bats in right. The newcomers out-homered the departed quartet by two in 83 fewer '08 at-bats and should provide a major improvement in the bottom half of the order.

Key question: Can the Rays build on a surprising 2008?
Tampa Bay was baseball's laughingstock in the decade it played under the moniker Devil Rays, but the first season after exorcising the "Devil" -- poof! -- the Rays became surprise AL champs. The scariest part of the success of '08 is that nobody in the lineup had what could be deemed a career year. Third baseman Evan Longoria is getting better by the day, Carl Crawford will be back at 100 percent after being limited to just 109 games by hamstring and finger injuries and the team's longtime Achilles' heel, the bullpen, is in order even with veterans Troy Percival and Chad Bradford battling injuries.

Prospect to watch: David Price, SP
Judged solely by the way he pitched down the stretch and in October, you'd never have guessed that Price, the best pitching prospect in the game, made his big league debut on Sept. 14. In 19 2/3 innings, the lefty allowed a .155 opponent batting average with a 1.83 ERA and a 20-to-8 strikeout-to-walk rate, earning a win and a save in the ALCS against the Red Sox. The left-hander will begin the season as the Rays' fifth starter, but by the end of the campaign might be considered the ace of the staff. He's that good.

Position battle to follow: Closer
In a perfect world, the Rays could rely solely on veteran Troy Percival (28 '08 saves) to finish games, but a bad back left him with just one save after Aug. 13 and forced him to miss the postseason. At 39 and coming off December surgery, he's no lock to return to top form, leaving Dan Wheeler (13 saves) and Grant Balfour (four) to vie for ninth-inning duties.

Scout's take: "I don't think they'll drop off much, not with getting a full season out of David Price, who is the real deal. [Scott] Kazmir needs to learn how to pitch past the sixth. Overall, I love the starting pitching -- they're young and talented, and they're not going anywhere. The closer-by-committee doesn't worry me as much as it worries others because they've got quality arms there. I love Balfour. I think they're going to score more runs this year. Carlos Pena looked awful at the start of the year but got things turned around, and I think he's going to have a big season. I think the Pat Burrell signing was a very good one. He fits in well in that lineup. They're going to be good again, and they've got a chance to be better."

Toronto Blue Jays

Where: Dunedin, Fla. (Grapefruit League)

2008 record: 86-76 (4th, AL East)

Winter grade: D-
The Jays acquisitions of Michael Barrett, Kevin Millar, Mike Maroth, Matt Clement and Japan's Ken Takahashi would've been impressive if they had happened during the winter of 2004, but unfortunately for Toronto it's 2009. The aforementioned players were all signed to minor league deals and represent the closest GM J.P. Ricciardi got to significant additions. Facing severe financial constraints, Ricciardi could do little about losing his no. 2 starter, A.J. Burnett, to New York in free agency; No. 3, Shaun Marcum, to Tommy John surgery, which will cost him the year; and No. 4 Dustin McGowan to a bad right shoulder which will keep him sidelined for at least a month.

Key question: Who is going to eat innings for the Jays?
Toronto had the majors' best starter ERA last season (3.72) and only the Angels had more wins from the rotation (73 to 71), but Burnett and Marcum represented 36.4 percent of the season's starts, 36.5 percent of the starters' innings and 38 percent of rotation wins. Behind ace Roy Halladay and Jesse Litsch, the Jays have an unproven lot that includes Scott Richmond (1-3, 4.00 ERA), David Purcey (3-6, 5.59), former Oriole Brian Burres (7-10, 6.04) and rookie lefty Ricky Romero (8-8, 4.54 between Double and Triple A).

Prospect to watch: Travis Snider, LF/DH
One of the reasons the Jays were so quiet over the winter was the presence of the lefty-swinging 21-year-old. He experienced a meteoric rise to the majors, batting .301 in 73 September at-bats after hitting .275 with 23 home runs and a .480 slugging percentage on three minor league levels. He and former top prospect Adam Lind will share duties in left and/or at DH.

Position battle to follow: Shortstop
One free agent Ricciardi did go after was Rafael Furcal, who ended up re-signing with the Dodgers. Instead, longtime utility players John McDonald and Marco Scutaro will duke it out for time at the position. Last season the duo played a combined 950 innings at short (McDonald 478, Scutaro 472) and since neither is a special offensive asset, they'll likely split innings again this year. Unfortunately, top shortstop prospect Justin Jackson is still a couple of seasons away.

Scout's take: "This is a good team, they're just in the wrong division. I don't think they're as good as they were last year, because the rotation's a bit of a mess with Dustin McGowan out for a few months and Marcum out for the year. Those long-term deals they made for [Vernon] Wells and [Alex] Rios don't look so great anymore. They need those two to play like stars, but I don't see it happening. Travis Snider and Adam Lind need to have breakout years for this team to contend."

SI.com's 2009 Division Previews
AL EAST     |     AL CENTRAL     |     AL WEST     |     NL EAST     |     NL CENTRAL     |     NL WEST

 
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