AL East figures to be an epic race in 2009 (cont.)
But while most of the offense shined, the Rays lacked steady production from two traditional power sources: designated hitter and right field. Last year's Rays DH's combined for a .246 batting average (9th among AL teams), 24 home runs (tied for seventh) and 78 RBIs (11th). To solve their revolving DH door, Tampa Bay inked established slugger Burrell for the bargain rate of $16 million over two years. While Burrell has never played in the AL before, he brings a potent bat, as witnessed by his four 30-home run seasons in his nine-year career with the Phillies. To rectify the problem in right field, Tampa Bay added Kapler, who hit .301/.340/.498 for Milwaukee last year (crushing left-handed pitching) and traded for promising 24-year-old outfielder and Tampa native Joyce, who had 12 home runs and 33 RBIs in just 92 games for the Tigers last season.
Boston Red Sox
Problem: Injuries to key hitters and pitching depth.
Skinny: Cry not for the Red Sox, who still boast one of the most fearsome offenses in the game (they finished second in the AL in runs despite injuries to David Ortiz and Mike Lowell, who should both return to health), as well as a terrific front three in their rotation -- Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jon Lester and Josh Beckett -- and an All-Star closer in Jonathan Papelbon. Still, with a starting staff that pitched the fifth-fewest innings in the AL last year combined with a surprisingly shaky bullpen, Boston needed to shore up the back of its rotation and its middle relief. For about as much money as it costs to buy a hot dog on Yawkey Way, the Red Sox added a future Hall of Famer (Smoltz), two '07 All-Stars (Penny and Saito) and a hard-throwing setup man in Ramirez, who posted a 2.64 ERA for the woeful Royals in 2008.
New York Yankees
Problem: Starting pitching and middle-of-the-order offense.
Solution: Signed pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and first baseman Mark Teixeira.
Skinny: Only the last-place Orioles and the below-.500 Rangers got fewer innings from their starters than the Yankees in 2008. Injuries (Chien Ming-Wang, Phil Hughes) and ineffectiveness (Hughes, Ian Kennedy) to their projected starting rotation forced the Yankees to use has-beens and never-weres like Darrell Rasner, Sidney Ponson and even Carl Pavano for a combined 32 starts. With Mike Mussina's retirement and free agent Andy Pettitte's uncertain status, the Yankees were desperate for starting pitching. So this winter they invested heavily in innings-eaters Sabathia and Burnett, who, if healthy, give them a righty-lefty combo to compete with anything Boston or Tampa Bay can muster. If Wang and Hughes are healthy, they'll join rising star Joba Chamberlain to form one of the best rotations in baseball.
The Yankees' pitching woes may not have been as magnified had they not endured a nearly 200-run drop in their offensive production. But with Teixeira in the fold to protect Alex Rodriguez and healthier seasons for Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui, New York's offense has 900-run potential once again.
Baseball is fond of presenting its season as a marathon and not a sprint, but these teams will have to get out of the gate quickly in the spring if they are still to be playing in the fall. The Red Sox (14 games vs. the Rays and Yankees in their first 32), Rays (15 of their first 33) and the Yankees (10 of their first 30) will have a chance to beat each other up early and often in crucial head-to-head matchups that will establish an early season pecking order.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman made no secret for the reason behind his trio of big-money acquisitions. "This is a huge compliment to the Rays and the Red Sox, two teams that we're looking up at," Cashman said at the press conference introducing Teixeira. "We made these significant upgrades to try and compete and keep up with what they've done. Our division has exceptionally talented teams, and they're getting better. We know we have our work cut out for ourselves."
So does the rest of baseball. Once again the road to a championship is likely to run through the AL East. With the 100-win, AL West champion Angels losing Teixeira and record-setting closer Francisco Rodriguez and the mediocre AL Central (won by Chicago, in a one-game playoff over Minnesota, with 89 wins), the AL East could boast the three best records in the league in '09.
If you're a fan of another team floating the idea that the financially-loaded Yankees and Red Sox and the still-young and improving Rays are going away anytime soon or could be vulnerable next season, well, Pedroia himself said it best: Don't get used to it.